Animal bones tell stories about Mount Vernon humans

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Animal bones tell stories about Mount Vernon humans

April 11, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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All the cooking at Mount Vernon did not occur in the Mansion House kitchen, since slaves raised and probably prepared much of their own food. Photo courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Archaeological results, unlike Hollywood movies, can alter stereotypes and images we have formulated about the past. One of the best ways we can search for answers about past lives is by seeking "objective" information. Of course, all information is subject to interpretation, which may be affected by our own opinions and hopes of history. 

In an archaeological site, each little bit of information is equally important. Sometimes the information which may appear to say the least actually speaks volumes. This is often the case with animal bones excavated from sites. From hundreds, if not thousands, of seemingly useless bones zooarchaeologists can determine what animals were eaten, hunted, raised and even kept as pets. They also can identify the cuts of meat used in a household, the proportion of different animal foods in the diet, and sometimes can ascertain how foods were prepared.

The Mount Vernon archaeologists excavated a large collection of animals bones from the slave quarters cellar near the Mansion House dating the 1760s to the 1790s. Although the bones may not appear to be as attractive as beautiful buttons or dishes to some people, they provide fascinating glimpses into the lives of George and Martha Washington's slaves. More than 24,000 bones were recovered from the cellar. This quantity is amazing when you contrast it to the number of ceramics (578) and wine bottle glass (664) excavated. It is thought to be the largest collection of bones from any slave site in the Chesapeake.

Forty-six different species were identified, including mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, and crustaceans. Pig bones are the highest number from a domesticated animal. There is a great diversity of wild fowl (quail, dick, goose, turkey), other wild animals (deer, squirrel, rabbit, aposteme), and non-schooling fish (pickerel, gar and bluegill). In addition, there are many fresh-water fish, especially catfish, bass, and perch.

Where did the slaves procure their food? Slave owners provided some foods. George Washington, for instance, used part of the annual catch from his Potomac River fishery as slave rations, as well as supplying cornmeal and pork. The archaeological studies show that slaves supplemented their rations through their own activities.

Slaves were apparently gardening and raising their own chickens, as indicated by immature chicken bones and egg shells. In 1798, a visitor to Mount Vernon recorded the scene near the slave quarters: "A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. evidence comes from many gun flints and 124 pieces of lead shot ranging in size from 2mm to 18mm.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.

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