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Digging up history at Fairfield Plantation

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by Larry Chowning

The Fairfield Foundation at White Marsh in Gloucester County was established in 2000 with a focus on archaeological research and public outreach at the site of Fairfield Plantation, once home to the Burwell and Thurston families and hundreds of enslaved African Americans. 

Fairfield Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to archaeological research, preservation and education on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. 

The location of the plantation is tucked away in a field surrounded by a grove of trees off Fairfield Lane near White Marsh. Only a foundation of the original home remains, but there is a strong, almost mystical Virginia presence felt by what remains. An ongoing archaeological dig by the Fairfield Foundation is taking place at the site and the group has placed an “interpretive trail loop” with historical signs around the remaining foundation.

The signs with photos and images of the long-ago home are located at different angles to show how the structure looked at that spot. Along with late 19th-century photos of the building and current drawings, there is also historical information on the signs to support the images.

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This is one of several dig sites at Fairfield Plantation..

“The Fairfield Manor House—The World of Lewis Burwell II” is the title on the sign that shows how the front of the building once looked, using a 19th-century photo of Fairfield taken near the spot where the sign is located. The home, built in 1694, was one of the most splendid in Virginia and Lewis II hosted some of the most prominent people in the state there. Lewis II married Robert “King” Carter’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, and the prominent Northern Neck of Virginia King Carter was a frequent visitor to Fairfield. William Byrd of Westover also was a visitor there and wrote in his diary on May 4, 1709, “We walked in the garden for about an hour: then we went to dinner and I ate boiled beef.”

The signs also provide a glimpse into Colonial Virginia life. During the digs, archaeologists located the garden spot. “A central gate provided access to the garden from the manor house,” reads the sign at the garden. “While the garden provided growing space for fruit, herbs and vegetables, it also functioned as a formal recreation space, as suggested by an 18th-century marble urn containing four dolphin head figures that is attributed to Fairfield.”

Another sign speaks to artifacts found near the slave quarter areas. Among the items found there were a large iron spike, raccoon baculum (penis bone), assorted glass beads, gun flint fragments, straight pins, 18th-century ceramics, iron scissors, cowrie shells, a copper/alloy button, galena fragment and slate pencil. 

The signs also show facades of the building at different angles and have interior drawings of how the rooms were set up in the house. The north facade shows that the house was a transition between Jacobean and Georgian era architecture. The north facade had elements of Georgian styles with large, massive chimneys, which can be seen in the Georgian-style Bacon’s Castle in nearby Surry County.

Fairfield was built near the end of Jacobean era and had that era’s designs with two diagonally set chimney stacks, a parapet wall on the south gable, and a symmetrical window placement built into the home. Georgian elements were massive chimneys on the east and west gables with elaborate stacks and detailed brickwork.

Mounds and mounds of bricks are stacked in the woods that have been found during digs and a large portion of the foundation is still intact and covered for protection.

The Burwell family lived at Fairfield until about 1787.

Fairfield Plantation is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The site is open to the public. The main signs state that visitors “stay on marked paths and please do not remove any bricks or other artifacts.”

It also states that “we welcome comments and contribution.”

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These artifacts were found during archeological digs at Fairfield Plantation near the slave quarters on the grounds.

For more information, visit http://www.fairfieldfoundation.org.

posted 04.27.2017

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