Fall 2014 Issue

Something's Brewing

By Joseph McClain

The Historic Campus has seen a lot since the College’s 1693 founding and much of it — revolution, fires, a Civil War battle — was destructive. Accordingly, a great deal of the paper records of William & Mary’s early years have been lost. To fill in the numerous blanks in the paper record, Louise Kale HON ’09 has looked under the ground.

Kale, who served as director of William & Mary’s Historic Campus from 1995 until her retirement this summer, also served as a kind of executive director of a dozen archaeological digs during her tenure. In August, Kale sat in her office in the Wren Building and talked about what nearly 20 years of archaeology have contributed to our understanding of the growth of the nation’s alma mater.

Kale was particularly enthusiastic about work in progress on 18th-century foundations just south of the Wren Building, a dig that had been on her list for three years.

“We can easily say that this is the most significant archaeological discovery on William & Mary’s campus since the discovery of the Thomas Jefferson foundations out back,” she said during early stages of work. Weeks later, when excavation and analysis revealed that it almost certainly was the College’s brewhouse that once sat atop those foundations, she didn’t take back a word of it.

Archaeologists with the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) had discovered segments of an intriguing brick foundation in 2011 underneath a brick walkway that was slated for expansion. Directed by archaeologist Joe Jones, WMCAR specializes in working under tight deadlines at sites slated for construction, making sure that the work won’t destroy some significant archaeological component of the College’s (and the nation’s) heritage.

“If you’re working on a deadline, Joe and his team can always bring it home,” Kale said. “They do excellent archaeology and they do excellent documentation.”

WMCAR’s discovery was significant enough that the walkway work was postponed. The foundations were backfilled, to rest until this summer, when a team of archaeologists from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation began a full excavation.

Jones and other archaeologists didn’t have much to go on to identify the use of the building in the 2011 WMCAR discovery dig. The tentative, preliminary ideas were that the building might have been a workspace, a kitchen or perhaps a laundry. Kale was hoping that it was the schoolhouse mentioned in documents that predate the Wren Building, originally known as simply the “main building.”

As work progressed this summer, more and more evidence pointed toward a brewhouse. Edward Chappell ’72, the Shirley and Richard Roberts Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research at Colonial Williamsburg, said that drains around the inner edges of the walls point to a beer-making facility, as does a circular feature that likely once held a vat.

Kale and Chappell both note that early records matter-of-factly record that a brewhouse was indeed part of the College’s physical plant. William & Mary is a great place for connections among historical documents, existing buildings and archaeological discoveries.

Photograph by Melissa Golden
Such connections helped identify the Jefferson foundations found in 1940 between the Wren Building and the Sunken Garden.


Thomas Jefferson’s planned expansion would have extended the Great Hall and the Chapel wings and connected them with a western block that would form a Cambridge/Oxford–style enclosed quadrangle. Work was barely started before the Revolutionary War intervened.

What we call the Historic Campus was the College’s entire campus for much of its history. There is a lot of history still underneath the ground: “Honestly, it’s pretty hard to stick a spade in the College Yard without finding something,” Kale said, “although you may have to go way down.”

Going way down, when you’re doing archaeology, isn’t a matter of power equipment or even vigorous shoveling. After the sod is off, you kneel out there with a trowel and scrape, a fraction of an inch at a time. Kale still speaks sympathetically about some of the students in a three-summer field school looking to uncover evidence of early Wren Yard gardens.

“The first year — bless their hearts — those students did nothing but dig clay over by the President’s House,” she said. “The first year was just a complete bust, because there was so much clay overburden. And when they got to the bottom of the clay, there was just no time left.”

Persistence paid off, though, as the third year of the field school confirmed that the Wren Yard was once indeed graced by formal gardens, as depicted on the 18th-century Bodleian Plate. Archaeology has also shown that the Wren had another side, literally and figuratively.

“We think of the Wren Building today as a 360-degree building—beautiful from all angles. But in the 18th century, it was a building with a front and a back. The front, with its formal gardens, was the main attraction. What we would consider the backyard, where you tossed out all the garbage after dinner, was on the north side behind the fence,” Kale said.

Private donors have supported much of the archaeology in the Historic Campus, but other digs have been prompted by preparation for physical-plant needs.

Kale has kept WMCAR (and other archaeologists) busy in recent years, when a mammoth underground utility project and other campus improvements required a lot of digging. Sometimes, the utility digs turn out to be just as interesting as the commissioned work.

In 2012, for example, WMCAR excavated the remains of a time in which the campus was a Civil War battlefield. They found evidence of defensive works and a well dug by occupying Union soldiers, some of whom burned what we now know as the Wren Building. The Yankees were right to be prepared: an 1863 raid by Confederate cavalry brought the war right into the Wren Yard.

All of the digs were helpful to understanding the development of William & Mary and even the nation’s history, but Kale calls the brewhouse dig the capstone of her time here. She is aware of the special significance that news of a three-century-old beer establishment holds for a campus community, but points out a brewhouse doesn’t mean there was an Animal House.

“Beer was safer to drink than water. It was probably served with every meal. Having a brewhouse in the 18th century was not a big deal. Finding the foundations of one in the 21st century is a big deal,” she said. “And it’s ever so much cooler than a schoolhouse.”