Chance encounter clears up archaeologists’ mystery

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Chance encounter clears up archaeologists’ mystery

October 20, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Redware pottery used in the manufacture of refined sugar in Alexandria. Jar and jar fragments courtesy of Welly Goddin. Photo Credit: Alexandria Archaeology.
As we were digging the Moore-Mclean Sugar House Site, which until recently was at North Alfred and Cameron Streets, we did not know exactly what we would find. To our knowledge, this was the first early 19th century sugar refinery discovered and excavated in America.

All the soil excavated by hand was sifted through screens in order to recover even the smallest artifacts. Samples were taken of mortar, brick and other architectural materials for later testing. Many of the excavation squares produced small redware pottery fragments. Some were cone-shaped with pointed tips. What were they? Were they somehow associated with the sugar refined here from 1804 to 1828? Why did we keep finding coral and water-worn ceramic pieces in the screens? These were questions which archaeological investigation would eventually answer.

In science, art and every day life, sometimes serendipity plays a major role in creativity and problem solving. Such was the case in the Sugar House inquiry. Mr. Welly Goddin walked into the Alexandria Archaeology Museum one day with a coarse redware jar. He said that it had been discovered in one of his buildings at King and North Alfred streets.

The jar was not the usual type of redware which we had previously seen in Alexandria. It was about 12 inches high with a very small mouth and wide rolled rim. The jar was unglazed on the exterior (like a flowerpot), but glazed on the inside. This interior glazing reduced the permeability of the redware, permitting the jar to hold a liquid.

After some research, we determined that it had a special role in the making of refined sugar. The artifact, a "syrup jar" helped us understand what all the redware fragments were doing on the Sugar House site. Subsequent excavation of Mr. Godden's basement unearthed a cache of large-size redware ceramics associated with sugar making.

Why were these artifacts so far away from the Sugar House itself? Additional documentary research into the history of 900 King Street showed that William Moore, who established the Sugar House in 1804, also had an interest in the King Street property. Perhaps broken sugar pottery from the refinery were discarded as needed fill over on King Street.

This excavation helped to interpret the small fragments discovered at the Sugar House and lead us to a greater understanding of the more than 10,000 pottery pieces which we eventually found.

Next week we will follow along in the next step of archaeology--analysis. How were all those sugar pots used in refining sugar 190 years ago? What was the role of the unusual cone-shaped redware fragments?

Celebrate Archaeology Month ! Visit the Carlyle House excavations at 121 N. Fairfax Street on Saturdays and hands-on laboratory work in the Museum, Torpedo Factory Art Center, on Sundays in October. Call 703-838-4399 for information and times.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist