Wye House Plantation and Landscape Archaeology

The Wye House mansion

The Wye House mansion. Source: Historic American Buildings Survey

This week, our field school has begun digging at Wye House Plantation in Easton, MD, where we will be working for the next three weeks. This is not the first year the AiA program has excavated at Wye House – for the past few summers, archaeology students have been digging units at various locations of interest around the plantation.

Wye House may be best known by its inclusion in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, as he was enslaved there for a few years when he was a young child. The plantation has an extensive history, which begins when Edward Lloyd settled the land in the mid-17th century. Wye House Plantation has been run and owned by the descendants of the Lloyd family ever since, and was active as a plantation from the 18th-19th centuries. Throughout the Lloyd’s ownership of the Wye Plantation, its landscape has undergone numerous changes due to both physical damage to the property as well as societal changes in America at the time. The original main house on the plantation burned down in 1781 and was rebuilt by Edward Lloyd the IV shortly after. Although not entirely conclusive, there is evidence that when the house was rebuilt, Lloyd changed its orientation to face the extensive “wild” and open land, as opposed to facing the industrial working side of the plantation.

Ha-Ha at Burghley House in England

Ha-Ha at Burghley House in England. Source: http://austenonly.com

One of the graduate students, Beth Pruitt, gave an informal tour of the Wye House landscape on our first day at the location, and I found the discussion regarding the main house to be especially interesting. Around the time Wye House was rebuilt, there was a general desire to “return to nature” in the sense that natural landscapes were being seen as increasingly desirable. The change in the orientation of Wye House could be explained by this shift in society’s opinion of the natural world. However, the concept of nature as something to be feared and controlled still persisted, and the front lawn at Wye House has a constructed border to separate it from the land and livestock: What can be described as an “invisible wall”, called a ha-ha, was built beyond the front lawn of the main home. A ditch was dug in front of the house and a wall built within it, as a way for the residents of the house to feel that they were part of nature while still being kept separate from it. An example of a ha-ha is shown in the image.

While the landscape is designed to draw your eye to the main house, and to display the power of the white plantation owner, our field school is most interested in the more hidden lives of the slaves working on the Wye House Plantation. In previous years, likely locations of where slave quarters would have been have been identified, and this summer, our field school has laid out six 5’x5’ units to help us further understand what life would have been like for slaves on the Wye Plantation. The units have been strategically placed to uncover the door to a slave quarter, a stone wall that may have been part of a cellar, and the potential location of an African American garden. It is still very early in the excavation process, but we know there will be a lot to learn from what we will uncover, and I am looking forward to getting to deeper stratigraphic levels within the units.

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