Archeology at Arlington House

Archeologists Discover George and Martha Washington’s Porcelain at Arlington House
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4 minutes, 51 seconds

Learn about the archeology happening at Arlington House as part of the rehabilitation project.

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Learn about a remarkable discovery at Arlington House during the rehabilitation of the mansion, outbuildings, and grounds.

Archeologists dig in front of Arlington House.
National Park Service archeologists dig in front of the mansion in August, 2018.

NPS Photo

NPS Archeologists Digs a Test Unit at Arlington House
NPS Archeologist Michael Roller excavates a test pit at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

In a truly remarkable discovery, National Park Service (NPS) archeologists at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, have found pieces of porcelain likely from President George Washington and his wife, Martha, during archeological investigations of the site.

The archeological investigations were part of the initial rehabilitation work on the grounds at Arlington House. The National Park Service officially broke ground on the $12.35 million rehabilitation of Arlington House this summer, thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Mr. David Rubenstein.
Some of the ceramic fragments recovered were pieces of the ‘States’ porcelain, originally owned by the Washingtons and used at Mount Vernon. In 1796, a Dutch merchant presented Martha Washington with a set of these porcelain plates that contained her monogram (“MW”) and was surrounded by the names of all 15 United States at that time. Intact matching pieces of this service set reside in the collections of some museums, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Fragments of States Porcelain in Hand
A piece of “States” porcelain discovered at Arlington House in 2018.

NPS Photo

Intact States Saucer
An original piece of ‘States’ porcelain in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Photo

Drawing of the states porcelain by Benson Lossing
This is an engraving of some of the ‘States’ porcelain that was at Arlington House in the 19th century.  It was published in a history book by Benson Lossing in 1859.

Benson Lossing Engraving

The Washington Family
The Washington Family, by Edward Savage, 1796.  This painting of the Washington family by Edward Savage depicts George and Martha Washington with her grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, and an unidentified enslaved individual.

National Gallery of Art

How did this Washington porcelain end up at Arlington? Following the deaths of George and Martha Washington, Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, inherited and purchased hundreds of items from Mount Vernon to bring with him to his new home, Arlington House. As he envisioned Arlington House serving as a memorial to George Washington, Custis proudly displayed and used the Washington porcelain at Arlington.
Martha Washington's Will
The will of Martha Washington clearly lays out that George Washington Parke Custis was to receive the ‘States’ porcelain and Society of the Cincinnati porcelain, fragments of both were recently found at Arlington House.

Fairfax County Circuit Court

Fragment of Society of the Cincinnati Porcelain
A piece of Society of the Cincinnati porcelain uncovered at Arlington House in 2018.

NPS Photo

Two other pieces of porcelain discovered feature the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati. The Society of the Cincinnati was a fraternal organization that appeared at the conclusion of the War for Independence composed of former officers of the Continental Army. The Society was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who was a Roman hero who left his farm to fight in the defense of Rome, only to return to his plough to be a humble farmer rather than seize power for himself. George Washington was often referred to as the American Cincinnatus because he similarly refused power and he would serve as the Society’s first president from 1783 to 1799. During this time, Washington purchased hundreds of porcelain plates and cups emblazoned with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati. These were used by the Washington family while they were in Philadelphia and at their home Mount Vernon.
Society of the Cincinnati Porcelain
A piece of Society of the Cincinnati porcelain in the collection at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

These finds demonstrate Arlington House’s original roles as both the residence of the Custis family and a memorial to George Washington. It is rare for archeologists to find objects that can be so clearly identified as to who made, owned, and used an artifact.
Archeologists sifting at Arlington House.
Archeologists digging and sifting at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

These significant finds will be documented, and the artifacts will be washed, accessioned, cataloged and eventually placed on exhibit when the house reopens.
Fragment of a toothbrush head.
A wooden toothbrush head uncovered at Arlington House in 2018.  The holes would have been where the bristles were attached.

NPS Photo

In addition to these significant porcelain fragments, archeologists found a variety of artifacts dating from when the mansion was constructed between 1802 and 1818, including ceramics, coins, personal items (including the head of a toothbrush), and kitchen refuse, such as oyster shells, animal bones and charcoal.These items, in addition to the soils and the context in which they were found, will tell us more about the early years at Arlington House and the lives of the Custis family and the enslaved people who lived here.

These finds occurred as a result of the digging happening around the historic mansion in order to find, remove, replace, and add new utility lines leading to the mansion. These utilities, including those providing water, gas, and electricity to the house, as well as draining rainwater away from the house, are old and need to be replaced. The new and improved lines will better serve the long-term preservation of the site.

National Park Service archeologists also observed areas below the ground that appeared undisturbed from previous utility work. To investigate the potential presence of artifacts and other historic materials, they carefully conducted an archeological investigation. Through these excavations, archeologists discovered intact layers of soil dating back to the early 1800s when the mansion was first constructed.

Archeologists monitoring excavations
Archeologists monitor digging around the site as new utility lines are replaced.

NPS Photo.

The National Park Service is committed to preserving and protecting not only the historic features above ground, but also the important archeological features and artifacts underground. National Park Service archeologists monitored all the work where digging occurred on site in order to identify archeological resources and investigate archeological findings when necessary, as well as to ensure any potential disruptions to artifacts and features were avoided or minimized.

The National Park Service will continue to monitor all the work at Arlington as the rehabilitation continues.

Pieces of the Washington 'States' Porcelain
A closer look at the recovered pieces and you can notice in the upper right hand corner the head of a snake eating its own tail.  This is an ouroboros, an ancient symbol for eternity, in this case symbolizing the perpetual American Union.

NPS Photo

Last updated: September 2, 2020

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