In and around Williamsburg, ongoing archeology digs reveal artifacts from a tapestry of historical periods, showcasing our area’s unique past. Centuries of human stories are told through these unburied discoveries, beginning with the Native American tribes who made their home on the Virginia Peninsula for over 12,000 years before the earliest days of the first colonial settlement in Jamestown and Williamsburg’s development into a cultural, educational, and political hub. Recent digs have also unearthed remnants of the Civil War, which raged in and around Williamsburg in 1862. The careful excavation of the nearby First Baptist Church site has deepened our understanding of Williamsburg’s fascinating African-American history.
Several of these archeology digs are a few blocks from our Williamsburg bed and breakfast, while the dig site at the heart of the Historic Jamestowne Island is just a six-mile drive away and a perfect day trip. At all of them, you can get up close and see artifacts unveiled in real-time, a tangible and rare glimpse at archeology in action.
Start four blocks away at the Custis Square site, which is in the final year of its 5-year planned dig project. Throughout the year (it’s busiest in the warmer months, but winter doesn’t stop the dedicated diggers), teams of archeologists work tirelessly alongside William and Mary field school students, volunteers, and Colonial Williamsburg staff historians at the 4-acre pasture across from the Art Museums in the center of the historic area.
John Custis IV made his home here in 1717, building a colonial-era house alongside immaculate gardens famous for their manicured design and ornate beauty. Custis garnered vast wealth from his tobacco plantations along the East Coast, but his home garden in Williamsburg was his life’s passion and the main focus of this dig. Post holes help archeologists map the original layout, while once-buried walkways and statues reveal other aspects of what it looked like here during the early 18th century.
One-hour tours of the Custis site happen every few days, starting at 9:30 a.m. at the corner of Francis and Nassau Streets, and are included on the Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket.
Other archeology digs of note within downtown Williamsburg are at the Magazine – once used as an ammunition storehouse – and at the site of the original First Baptist Church.
Archeologists recently found bodies of Civil War soldiers underneath the wall of the Powder Magazine, casualties of the bloody Battle of Williamsburg, a part of the Peninsula Campaign. As with all public buildings at the time, the Williamsburg Baptist Church, adjacent to the colonial Powder Magazine, was used as an emergency hospital dealing with the thousands of casualties from the battle in May of 1862.
Meanwhile, three years of recent excavation (2020-23) at the First Baptist Church site laid bare layers of history, including discovering a foundation from 1818, predating the previously unearthed structure from 1856. A coin from 1817 helped to confirm the exact period, showing how artifacts combine to help us get the history right. Of even greater significance, DNA testing revealed exhumed skeletons from the church site to be ancestors of the earliest days of the First Baptist congregation. Led by Reverend Gowan Pamphlet, these Black churchgoers, some free and some enslaved, met secretly and formed the backbone of the African-American community in Williamsburg from the time of slavery through the current day.
Along with millions (not a typo!) of other artifacts, these discoveries will be the centerpiece of the Campbell Archeology Center at Colonial Williamsburg. Under construction now and set to open in 2025, it will feature hands-on archeology labs and exhibits where you can see the intense and thorough process of cleaning, documenting, and categorizing every find and treasure.
Historic Jamestowne Island, part of the Historic Triangle and one of our favorite Williamsburg day trips, features an active archeology dig and an Archaearium museum where you can dive into Jamestowne’s historical importance. Famously the spot where the first group of 104 settlers from England came ashore in 1607, the Jamestowne site has been one of the world’s most active and fertile archeology digs since the mid-1990s, a constant source of discovery.
The dig continues today, and every week brings another relic, whether it be pottery, carpentry and blacksmith tools, glass beads traded between the settlers and the native Powhatan tribe, or the exhumed skeletons of some of the original British settlers.
Check the Historic Jamestowne archeology blog for updates on current digs, which in the summer of 2023 focused on the Governor’s Well. Wells are inspiring prospects for archeologists, as artifacts buried deep in mud decompose slower and are often better preserved. Tour the Jamestown Rediscovery site to see live-action archeology and follow that up with an hour or two in the Archaearium, where over 4,000 artifacts bring the Native American and colonial settlers’ experience to life.