Latest archeological dig looks at terraced gardens at former Greenfield Plantation site

Hurt & Proffitt Director of Cultural Resources Randy Lichtenberger checks a core soil sample Monday on the terraced garden at Botetourt Center at Greenfield.
Photo by Ed McCoy

Hurt & Proffitt archeologist Randy Lichtenberger was back on the hillside that was the center of the Greenfield Plantation founded by Colonist Col. William Preston in the 1760s.

This time, he and associate Keith Adams along with volunteers from Friends of Greenfield Preston Plantation (FGPP) were digging in selected spots on the terraces on the southern face of the hill where Lichtenberger spent several weeks two-and-a-half years ago looking for artifacts from the Greenfield manor house and two historic wooden structures that dated to the mid-1800s.

The five-step terrace has intrigued Lichtenberger, members of FGPP and others interested in the history of the plantation ever since the May 2016 dig. The terraces step down from the top of the ridge where the Preston manor house stood to near the edge of the small lake that’s now part of Botetourt Center at Greenfield.

Earlier this year, the Botetourt Board of Supervisors granted permission for Lichtenberger to take some core samples on the terraces and survey the site to see if there was a reason to do additional archaeological work on what are called the terraced gardens.

Those samples prompted the supervisors to approve shovel testing of the terraced gardens in August and awarded Hurt & Proffitt a $9,880 contract to do the limited work. The funds come from the Greenfield Preservation Fund.

This week, Lichtenberger and volunteers were digging and sifting through the dirt to see what artifacts they could find and what they might tell about the terraces.

“Obviously, this was an intensive and big undertaking,” Lichtenberger said, but we don’t know when it was built or for what reason.”

He believes the archaeological work he’s conducting now may provide those answers. “We’ll let the artifacts tell us what it is,” he continued.

The terraces are unique in Western Virginia, he said. There are examples of terraced gardens in Eastern Virginia— some large ones—that date to the 1700s. Whether the Greenfield terraces date to that time period is still a guess. He speculates they do date to before the 20th century based on early 20th century photographs of the plantation.

In order to do the shovel testing on the site, he designed a research plan that is minimally invasive but should answer basic questions about the site. “This will tell us if it’s worthwhile to do additional work in the future,” he said.

The digging being done now will hopefully produce artifacts that will help date the terraces, at least to a relative time period.

Early in the dig, they were finding what he called “a steady flow of artifacts.” Those included pieces of brick, cut stone, nails from different time periods, shards of white stoneware, egg shells, glass, parts of a fairly large stoneware pot, pieces of stone, etc.— all suggesting a later occupancy than the 1700s.

But again, that was still early in the dig.

Still, what they had so far was a lot of different artifacts from different time periods that are “pretty ideal for dating.”

They will also keep some of the soil from the site that could eventually be used to determine what types of seeds were in the ground.

As they go about working on the terraces, they’ll be looking for evidence of dividers that may have been used in a garden, pathways, planting areas and trees should the terraces have supported an orchard.

While the gardens in Eastern Virginia are “formal,” in the early part of the dig at Greenfield that didn’t seem to be the case; although the area may have been plowed after its use as a formal garden.

Each of the terraces is about 30 feet across by about 175 in length along the hillside.

Also, early in the dig, Lichtenberger said he’s leaning toward the idea that the terraces date to the antebellum period since it would have taken so much work to created the terraces— which means it’s likely slave labor was used.

He said generally terraced gardens were started at the top of the hillside, dirt was moved forward leveling the terrace and creating a back wall, then the same thing was done stepping down the hill.

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