Archeologists Discover George and Martha Washington’s Porcelain at Arlington House
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.
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.
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.
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.
These significant finds will be documented, and the artifacts will be washed, accessioned, cataloged and eventually placed on exhibit when the house reopens.
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.
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.
Last updated: September 2, 2020