Perfect for the Preservation of Wooden Artifacts

The main structure of Hay’s cabinet shop was built in the 1740s at the bottom of a ravine on a Williamsburg back street. A later extension, appended to the west wall of the original structure, spanned a small stream that snaked its way through the ravine. Never made to power early machinery, the stream, combined with the gully and locale, likely made for cheap real estate. The potential savings were offset over time by the stream’s slowly destructive interaction with the building’s foundations. Anthony Hay and successors – Benjamin Bucktrout and Edmund Dickinson – were kept busy by the stream’s constant encroachments. While the business thrived until Dickinson’s 1776 enlistment in the First Virginia Regiment, the building slowly fell into disrepair. By 1782 it might have been completely dilapidated or entirely dismantled, for it fails to appear on a detailed map of Williamsburg’s buildings drawn that year. 

Yet as corrosive as the stream was to the structure, it proved to be an equally strong preservative to the detritus that remained from its dismantling. The stream both discouraged future building on the site and produced, with its heavy layers of silt, an anaerobic environment perfect for the preservation of wooden artifacts. During Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume’s 1959-1960 excavation of the Hay site, Hume found enough structural evidence to allow for a reasonable reconstruction of the shop and he also unearthed numerous brass and steel artifacts of the cabinetmaker’s trade. Remarkably, preserved in the silt along the east bank of the stream and its flood plain were the kinds of things that do not usually last long underground: wood shavings, broken pieces of furniture, and most significantly, two legs – one likely for a chair and one for a table. Hume’s digging would ultimately lead researchers to attribute several pieces to the Hay Shop and began a decades-long debate over what these legs were intended for and why they came to rest in the stream bed for two centuries. A cabinetmaker’s mistakes became some of Colonial Williamsburg’s most prized and oft-discussed furniture-related objects.

–Bill Pavlak, excerpt from “The Weight of the Past: Unearthing the 18th-century Cabriole Leg,” in Issue Seven


Would you like email notifications of our daily blog posts? Sign up below...