September 27, 2012
At first glance, the archaeologically recovered figurines pictured above appear very…well, unimpressive. They look plain, eroded, broken–they don’t even have heads to add at least some visual interest! And yet, they are both objects rife with historic significance. How, you may ask, can objects so seemingly dull possess so much importance? The answer is simple: you must spare more than a passing glance at these headless individuals and put them in their proper context.
Let us first zoom in–so to speak–and conduct an in-depth physical examination of these figurines. If you ignore their headlessness, the statuettes have a rather picturesque or pastoral quality to them. The male figure clutches a hat in his right hand, while his left encases a cane-like object. His clothing is quite embellished, and you can still see remnants of the cufflinks and buttons that once adorned his coat. The woman is clothed in an elegant gown, complete with graceful pleats and ruffles. Her ensemble is further decorated by a long necklace, and a small dog–located on her left side by her feet–keeps watch over his or her mistress.
As for their historic context, these figures date from approximately 1750 to 1770, found in the South Grove Midden just 80 feet from the Mount Vernon Mansion. Although this timeframe tells us that the figurines were present in Mount Vernon during George Washington’s lifetime, it does not shed light on their intended purpose. For this, we must look to their compositional material. Both are made from pipe clay, so-termed because this type of clay was typically used to make tobacco pipes. Pipe clay figurines were common during the 18th century, and usually served as religious totems, decorative curios, or toys for children.
Two features of our figurines indicate that they served the latter purpose. First, both statues are very small, each measuring less than 4 inches. In addition, excess clay appears to encompass the edges of both the man and the woman. One potential explanation for this excess is that it was intentionally left on the statues after they were removed from their molds to make them sturdier and less breakable. Thus, the figurines are both small and resilient, making them portable and able to withstand most playtime activities.
We often think of Mount Vernon as synonymous with George Washington and therefore forget the other occupants of his estate. However, the two figurines call attention to these occasionally overlooked residents. When Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, he became guardian to Martha’s two 6 year-old children–Jacky and Patsy–who were the result of her previous marriage. It is therefore possible that our now headless man and woman were once the playthings of George Washington’s step-children! So the next time you see something seemingly uninteresting, be sure to look deeper. Who knows what fascinating things you can discover in the world all around you!
Part of the current research in the Preservation Department is the re-analysis of the archaeological collection form the South Grove Midden, a mid-18th century trash deposit near the mansion. Artifacts from the midden provide valuable information about George Washington and his family and friends, supporting the historical documents that detail how the South Grove was transformed from an area where trash was deposited into a pleasure grove during Washington’s life. To find out more about the South Grove Midden, visit: http://mountvernonmidden.org/wordpress/