Anyone familiar with Richard Scarry’s Busytown knows that Jason the Mason builds foundations. At last week’s Adventures in Preservation/Fairfield Foundation workshop, this was also true. Brick masons Jason Whitehead, Ray Canetti, and Bill Neff came out to our workshop to give demonstrations on making lime mortar and building with bricks.
Between the historic preservation demonstrations and the on-site excavations, we spent the week immersed in the world of bricks and mortar. The workshop, led by Fairfield Foundation directors Dave Brown and Thane Harpole, was held in Gloucester, Virginia, on the site of the Fairfield Plantation. The plantation house at Fairfield was built in 1694 by the wealthy Burwell family and stood until it was destroyed in a fire in 1897. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 500,000 bricks were used to build the house, meaning that after bricks were stolen from the house following the fire there were still plenty left in the ground.
Digging through Layer C (the third stratigraphic layer at a dig site) meant clearing buckets and buckets of brick rubble. We learned to identify brick bats from fragments and over-fired bricks from under-fired. We also learned that Layer C, while full of brick fragments, is not very rich in artifacts. We found some Unidentified Iron Objects, nails, glass and ceramic fragments, and animal bone. However, the week’s biggest find fit in perfectly with the brick-and-mortar theme: instead of uncovering a complete foundation wall, workshop participants uncovered a portion of wall that included a previously unknown opening that suggests either a cellar window or entrance.
The dual focus on archaeology and preservation was especially interesting. While we spent about half the time excavating, we spent the other half learning and thinking about how to preserve something after it had been uncovered. Our focus, of course, was the plantation house’s exterior brick wall, parts of which had been uncovered on previous digs. A section of the wall was falling prey to the elements and exposure, causing mortar to simply crumble. The solution was for Jason the Mason, with the assistance of workshop participants, to re-mortar sections of the wall.
The mortar used was made in the same way it would’ve been when Fairfield was built. Burned oyster shells were mixed with sand and water, which created a reaction and turned the shells into lime. This is the same kind of mortar that was used from about the 4th century BCE up until the 19th century. The lime, though durable, causes chemical burns should be kept away from exposed skin and (of course) eyes. The old-fashioned way to get mortar out of your eye? Have your co-worker lick it.
– Hallie Borstel
Hallie is a recent college grad with a BA in history who is fascinated by all things historical. She was thrilled to join AiP for her first adventure in preservation to give “hands on history” a try – and loved it! She also loves cooking and blogs at thewordybaker.wordpress.com.