In Intertwined Stories, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon by bringing you extended versions of some of the interviews with the series' contributors.
Throughout Intertwined, archaeological research helped us uncover the lives of Kate, Doll, Frank Lee, Neptune, and hundreds of other people enslaved at Mount Vernon.
While we can learn many important details about the past from letters, account books, or maps, equally important answers lay just beneath the surface.
To help us better understand how archeology can help us recover landscapes and the meaning people gave to them, we talked to Dr. Jason Boroughs, who currently works as the research archaeologist at George Washington's Mount Vernon.
Intertwined'sco-creator Jeanette Patrick served as the lead interviewer for our conversation with Boroughs, joined by co-creator Jim Ambuske.
Intertwined is narrated by Brenda Parker and is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared. Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies for Intertwinedare available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
"Landscapes of Meaning"
Episode Published March 7, 2022
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jeanette Patrick
In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.
Throughout Intertwined, archaeological research helped us uncover the lives of Kate, Doll, Frank Lee, Neptune and hundreds of other people enslaved at Mount Vernon.
While we can learn many important details about the past from letters, account books, or maps, equally important answers lay just beneath the surface.
To help us better understand how archeology can help us recover landscapes and the meaning people gave to them, we talked to Dr. Jason Boroughs who currently works as the research archaeologist at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Intertwined’s co-creator Jim Ambuske joined me for our conversation with Boroughs. We begin by learning what archaeology entails, aside from digging in the dirt.
PATRICK: Can you explain, like, what, what does an archaeologist do aside from... And in addition to digging in the dirt, but just talk to us a little bit about your job, your field... You know, what is it that you're trying to do?
JASON BOROUGHS: Sure, well, the textbook answer and what I would normally tell an archeology student is that archaeologists interpret past lives and human experiences from the objects that they left behind and from the physical traces they left of themselves on landscapes that were often shaped by their own hands in actions. Now really what that means is we're looking at bits and pieces of the material world that humans interacted with, and we're trying to interpret their life experiences and their histories from those material items, whether that's objects or the land itself that was often shaped by those folks. And when you go further back in time before writing, archeology is really the only way to know about those people in their lives and experiences... Well, let me rephrase that. It's not the only way, because oral traditions often carry through thousands of years, but archaeology is probably the single best source for understanding about how people interacted with the environments in which they lived and with each other.
PATRICK: That's great, thank you. So you just use the phrase material items, could you talk about what that... Define that or define material culture. Kind of explain to us what those things might be...
BOROUGHS: Sure, material culture is the fancy academic term for stuff. I mean, honestly, artifacts are just objects, any material item that has passed through human hands. Now that could be something that's made by people, it could be... If we go back to stone tool technologies, for example, you're actually taking a physical piece of the environment, a rock, and you're actually making a useful item out of it to actually assist you in living your daily life. If we're doing archaeology on places that people have made stone tools, that might include the tool itself, that might include the process of tool manufacturer, which could be all the little bits and pieces of stone that weren't used to make that item, and if we zoom up to, you know, present times, think about basically the stuff that you discard in your daily life. Think about what you do throughout the course of your day. You eat lunch, you toss something in the garbage, you have chicken wings, maybe for lunch, you toss those wings either in the trash can and they end up in a landfill or you toss them in the woods, somebody like me might dig that up one day and actually start to infer something about your life.
BOROUGHS: So, material culture is generally any object that's kind of passed through human hands or is instilled with meaning by humans. But I would also expand that to talk about the land itself, which is often shaped by human hands. The sources of information we have is archaeologists. Everyone thinks of objects, right? Indiana Jones breaks into a tomb to get some magnificent object. He's not actually staring at the ground as much as the rest of us do. Right? So objects are the things that most people know about. But if we think about the other sources of information, the soil itself can actually tell us where human activities took place, and we use things like soil chemistry analysis to look at areas that have traces of human activity. And then there is another class of information from what we call archeological features, which is kind of a generic term for any part of the physical landscape that's been modified in a lasting manner by humans. Now that sounds like a lot of fancy talk, but basically, if you think of something like a well or a human grave for a cellar, we think of those as non-portable artifacts. We can't really pick that up and bring it back to a lab and dust it off and say something about this object. It stays out there on the landscape, but that tells us just as much as anything else about what people were doing and where they were and what they were thinking about, the world that they were living in. We generally have objects, the soil itself, and the landscape and those modifications to the landscape. And we spend a lot of time actually examining all three of those.
PATRICK: That was wonderful. Could you talk a little bit more about landscapes, maybe how a person reads the landscape or what, you know, kind of generically landscapes can tell us about the past.
BOROUGHS: Yeah, that's a great question. And it seems like a simple question, but it's also a very complex and difficult question that a lot of archaeologists have been struggling with for many, many years. There's a term cultural landscape, and again, it's kind of a fancy term, like material culture, whenever you see the term culture, it basically means there's a human component. Right? So, there is the landscape, which would be, just look outside... the physical land itself. Just like material culture, if that is modified by human hands, or it is instilled with meaning by humans, it becomes a cultural landscape. And I'll explain what I mean by that. It's a little bit like if a tree falls in the woods and no one's there to hear it, did it fall? There's a philosophical argument there... The cultural part, again, is the shared human component. So, if you think of something like the moon, we've been looking at the moon as long as we've been humans, right? And we've instilled individual and collective meanings in the moon. Now the moon, or at least parts of the moon itself is an archeological site because we have visited the moon, we've left physical objects up there and at some point in time, probably Elon Musk or someone else is going to send somebody up there that's actually going to re-examine those places where we first landed in the 60's. So the moon is an archeological site at the same time, before we visited that, it had many different collective meanings from many different groups of people. That makes it kind of a cultural landscape.
BOROUGHS: Now, in a more practical sense, I'm not going up to the moon right? Here at Mount Vernon, we have some of the best preserved cultural landscapes, or best preserved 18th century landscapes, we could call them pristine landscapes in this hemisphere, particularly on a plantation setting. And those landscapes hold traces of everyone that is lived and interacted with this place. Now that obviously includes people like George Washington and some of our deepest collective meanings revolve around Mount Vernon as a site of collective national memory right, and identity. People come to Mount Vernon, particularly because they want to learn an insight about George Washington that they can't get from a history book. This place was shaped by him, but at the same time, it was physically built by 317 enslaved African-Americans who were living here in 1799 at the time of his death. So this place also holds traces of their lives and experiences and their stories. They lived here like George Washington, and like George Washington, many of them died here. And one of the sites that we're engaging with is the cemetery that actually hold some of their physical remains. So a place like Mount Vernon holds many different meanings for many different groups of people. As an archaeologist, I'm trying to access all of those different stories and also provide some of the materials for people like descendants to tell their own stories and continue with their own family legacies about the things that have happened here.
JIM AMBUSKE: Jason, I have a quick follow-up about how objects acquire meaning or how humans rather give objects meanings. In some sense, the cemetery is an object of grand scale, and we can kind of, I think, common sensically understand how those places you're given meaning, but when you pull an object out of a ground and pick whatever favorite object you might think... How... As an archaeologist, are you able to determine that somebody thought of that in a particular way or gave that meaning that isn't readily evident once it comes out of the earth?
BOROUGHS: That's a wonderful question, you just described the quandary of every graduate student and archaeologist that ever lived. So yeah, trying to get into the heads of people that aren't alive anymore... Right? If you think about objects you've discarded even in the present day, what would a family member or a friend or someone you don't know think about the stuff you left behind? Would they be able to get into your head and see what you thought about... whatever it is that you discarded? Now, in some cases, a lot of these things might be utilitarian, right? If we find a fragment of a glass bottle, for example, chances are it held something, probably a liquid that was used as a food item or storage for something else. But in certain cases, that very same glass bottle, depending on the context of its deposition, could be actually viewed as a connection point between people and ancestors. For example, if you find that same glass bottle turned upside down as a grave offering in a African-American cemetery for a certain segment of the past, that would also be a material reference to the wisdom and power of ancestors. So as an archeologist, I need to understand the historical and cultural context of the way different objects can be used throughout different periods of time by different sets of people.
BOROUGHS: That's a monumental task. Right? Which is why we need lots of different archaeologists with lots of different viewpoints to come to, not even different conclusions, but have different questions about the same items. And that brings up another good point that it's not just the object itself, the object is for us, it's a fragment of information, right? But the depositional context of that object is the other kind of half of that meaning. So, a quick example, if I unearth a rib bone from a pig, for example, you know, so that is probably gonna suggest that someone was having dinner... Right? If I find that same fragment of a rib bone in an area that I know as a work yard or butchery yard that can tell us about where the animal was being butchered. If I find that same pig bone with a bunch of other domestic trash kind of dumped off to the side and a refuse pit, that might be someone clearing the table after dinner, right? So, really it kinda depends on where you're finding the object, and a good portion of the meaning that we kind of come to comes from that depositional context, and that is why it's absolutely essential for us to dig nice square holes and record the locations of the items we find. That's how we date what's in the ground. Basically, the same way that you as a historian is dating historical documents, we're looking at those objects and the ground itself as our primary source, and we're trying to get to that kind of level of understanding.
AMBUSKE: That was great, I also think you just provided the answer to why the humanities matter...
BOROUGHS: They do... [Laughter... ]
PATRICK: No argument from anyone in this group about that... Alright, so if we could step back a little bit and if you could talk about how archaeology in general, but you can also talk specifically about Mount Vernon really helps us tell more diverse, inclusive stories about plantation life.
BOROUGHS: You know, we're in a uniquely fortunate position as researchers at Mount Vernon to be blessed with the array of documents that we have. This part of the world for the listeners that may not be from the Virginia or Southeastern region. Virginia is what's referred to as a collection of Burned Counties. During the Civil War, the county administrators of the majority of counties in Virginia at the time, sent all of their historical records to Richmond for safe keeping, and of course, Richmond burned. So that means that most of the colonial records just don't exist anymore. But because this place was associated with George Washington, and he was away physically fighting the Revolutionary War, and then his two terms as president, he was actually living in Philadelphia because DC was actually being constructed at the time, he was writing a constant flow of correspondence to other family members that were here over seeing what was going on at the Home Farm. Those family members actually kept a lot of these documents within the family, didn't send those items to Richmond, and so we have this treasure trove, absolute treasure trove of historical documents. Now, that being said, that means that we know the names of all 317 enslaved men, women and children that were living here in 1799 ,the year that George Washington passed away, but those documents that were left to us were not written in their own hands.
BOROUGHS: What that means is that we have basically a great source of information, but we're looking through the eyes of the people that were writing those documents, and those aren't necessarily the same eyes of the people that were being observed. So, in other words, one of the best ways to know about the broader Mount Vernon community is through the items they left behind. These are the things that passed through their own hands, that ended up into the ground. Again, the landscape itself holds kind of residues of their activity, and we are charged with of unlocking some of that information. And we often use the documents hand-in-hand. I'm a historical archeologist, which means that I have the benefit of those documents to aid in the context to help create that understanding or that meaning behind those objects. Mount Vernon is particularly unique because we're blessed with those documents, but at the same time, we have to understand that those documents were written by individuals with different understandings of the world or with different biases or different just motivations. One of my advisors, a man named James Deeds, who's one of the pioneers in the field, used to talk about archaeology being a more democratic way of understanding the past, because it basically includes everybody.
BOROUGHS: Everybody uses objects. Everybody leaves behind a physical trace of their lives, and that's what we're using as our primary source. That's also what differentiates us a little bit from other researchers that are engaging with the past like historians, right. Not to say that historians don't also use material culture 'cause many do, but our methods are a little bit different between the two groups, and our questions and training and background is often a little bit different, which is another plug for the humanities, because we actually need all of those perspectives, right? It helps us create a more rich and fuller story of the complexities of the human past, right? I would say that archaeology is the way, the capital... THE way into understanding the lives of people that didn't leave behind their own documents.
PATRICK:Wonderful, thank you.
AMBUSKE:I wanna flip the script and ask you about bits of information or these gateways of humanity that you haven't found, that you hope to find or you suspect might exist based on what you've discovered in the ground already. Is there something that you think is out there that you're hoping might be there and that will confirm some of your suppositions?
BOROUGHS: So, one of the things that I didn't mention so much in areas that we've excavated, I did mention the House for Families, that is the only domestic, site of domestic habitation that we've excavated associated with an enslaved population here. We're currently working on excavating one of the outer quarters. Mount Vernon was part of a five farm agricultural enterprise, the Mansion House Farm is what you visit today, but the other four farms are where the brunt of the agricultural activities took place. And we've started preliminary excavations on a surviving fragment of a quarter of Union Farm, which was the neighboring farm. Seventy-six people were living there in 1799, including 30-something children, so it was a very vibrant, active place. We know from historical documents and from what descendants of the enslaved folks have told us that about two-thirds of enslaved adults in 1799 were married. Of that group, only one-third of that population was able to live under a common roof, under a shared roof on the same farm, you basically lived where you worked. That means that two-thirds of enslaved marriages occurred with people that lived in different places, so they basically traveled back and forth at night, on Sunday, the day off, and on holidays like Christmas and Easter.
BOROUGHS: Washington we know actually encouraged marriages amongst the enslaved folks. I think he was quoted in one of his letters as saying “marriage is like the defining event of a man's life, whether that's good or bad,” something along those lines. And it's something that he recognized, although enslaved folks are formally disenfranchised of marriage under Virginia law at the time, it was a common social practice, it was recognized by the enslaved community and by Washington. Now, why I'm bringing that up is that we often find items, or I should say since we've started excavating at Union Farm, we found items there that have mates here at Mansion House Farm. So that suggests to me that people are sharing resources, and you have to think of this community as kind of a large neighborhood, right, of extended family networks. And people are walking back and forth at night, Washington actually complained about that, how much people walked at night and how tired they would be not able to work the next day. But he seems to kind of let it, let it slide right? So as an archaeologist, I'm starting to find things at that form did actually have identical twins at this farm, whether that's a ceramic vessel, for example, or we know that there were actually whole architectural forms, basically, the Well House was carried from Mansion Farm to Union Farm to protect the well there, which upset Washington when he came home from war. He had a lot on his mind at the time, I'm sure. So we're starting to look for resource pooling and sharing, and that's a way of tracking some of these family lines as well. And we're doing a lot of that with the cemetery project, for example. So if your family is split amongst different farms, and I should say that children lived wherever the mother was, when one of your family members dies where are they buried? Are they buried on that farm of residents for one spouse or they buried where you might have other family members on a different farm. A historical example, one of the husbands at Union Farm had a wife that lived at Muddy Hole Farm, one of the other five farms, she actually passed away, and instead of the children coming to live with him, they lived with another relative on River Farm, which was, I mean, all of these farms are very close to each other, so just lived across the way at a different farm, and that suggests that these family networks are extremely complex. So, we're starting to kind of document materials that follow those family lines, which again, we're fortunate to have those documents that you just don't have on other plantation settings, so we're able to make connections that would be more difficult otherwise.
PATRICK: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m Jeanette Patrick, your host and producer for this episode.
Jim Ambuske and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.
Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.
And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com
Thanks for listening.
Jason Boroughs holds a PhD in anthropology from the College of William and Mary. With over 25 years of field experience excavating historic sites throughout America and the Caribbean, his research and publications focus on Atlantic plantation communities through enslavement and emancipation. He has held a variety of research and teaching positions in institutions such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Jamestown Rediscovery, and Salisbury University. He has served as Mount Vernon’s research archaeologist since 2016.