Archaeological conservation at Colonial Williamsburg: Sixty-five years of history

Emily Williams


In 1928 the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin convinced John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. to provide the financial backing for Goodwin’s dream of preserving and restoring the 18th c. buildings in Williamsburg, VA. The initial focus of the restoration was on the architecture of the town. The earliest excavations, conducted under the supervision of the Architects involved with the project, used a series of trenches dug at 45 degree angles to the main property lines. When foundations were discovered they were excavated and the buildings were reconstructed on the site. While this method of excavation did not provide any stratigraphic information it did provide a wealth of artifacts. Rutherfoord Goodwin was among the first to realize that these artifacts were not only useful in providing architectural details for the accurate reconstruction of the town but were also powerful tools for providing an insight into the domestic life of the eighteenth century. Starting with an old text by Lucas and chemistry students from the college of William and Mary, Rutherfoord Goodwin established a rudimentary lab in which artifacts could be cleaned, restored, catalogued and studied.

Since the initial lab was set up both the methods of excavating archaeological sites in the Historic area and the methods for treating them have changed significantly. With each change in technique there has been an accompanying change in philosophy. This paper will examine the development of archaeological conservation at Colonial Williamsburg since the creation of the first lab. It will also examine the effects that the newly emerging fields of Historic Archaeology and Conservation have had on the development of archaeological conservation at Williamsburg over the last 65 years.

1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6