35 18th c. glass bottles unearthed at Mount Vernon

The excavation of the cellar of George Washington’s Virginia mansion Mount Vernon has uncovered 35 glass bottles from the 18th century stored in five different pits. An astonishing 29 of them are still intact and, like the two bottles found earlier this year, they contain preserved fruit. There are cherries and some smaller berries, likely gooseberries or currants.

It was already a significant find when two intact, sealed glass bottles of European manufacture were found in the cellar in April. The contents turned out to be cherries, stems and pits included, preserved in a liquid. They were so well-sealed that the cherries were still fragrant.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this spectacular archaeological discovery,” said Mount Vernon President & CEO Doug Bradburn. “We were ecstatic last month to uncover two fully intact 18th-century bottles containing biological matter. Now we know those bottles were just the beginning of this blockbuster discovery. To our knowlege, this is an unprecedented find and nothing of this scale and significance has ever been excavated in North America. We now possess a bounty of artifacts and matter to analyze that may provide a powerful glimpse into the origins of our nation, and we are crossing our fingers that the cherry pits discovered will be viable for future germination. It’s so appropriate that these bottles have been unearthed shortly before the 250th anniversary of the United States,” Bradburn said.

The bottles have been underground since before the American Revolution. They were left behind when George Washington left his estate in a rush in May 1775 after the first of the American Revolutionary War were fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Wearing his military uniform, he joined the Second Continental Congress which just over a month later created the Continental Army and appointed Washington as its “General and Commander in chief.” Obviously the pickled and preserved fruits in his cellars were not foremost on his mind, nor, oddly enough given the deprivations of war, on the minds of the family he left behind and the phalanx of enslaved people who grew, harvested, cooked, preserved and managed the estate’s food.

Mount Vernon Principal Archaeologist Jason Boroughs said, “These extraordinary discoveries continue to astonish us. These perfectly preserved fruits picked and prepared more than 250 years ago provide an incredibly rare opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of the 18th-century environment, plantation foodways, and the origins of American cuisine. The bottles and contents are a testament to the knowledge and skill of the enslaved people who managed the food preparations from tree to table, including Doll, the cook brought to Mount Vernon by Martha Washington in 1759 and charged with oversight of the estate’s kitchen.”

Examination under a microscope has already revealed interesting details, like that the cherries were harvested by being cut off the branches with shears and the stems left attached for bottling. Analysis has found that these were tart cherries; the higher acid contents likely aided in their preservation. Researchers believe they are good candidates for DNA retrieval, and hope to compare them against a database of known heirloom varieties to identify their species. They’re also looking at the pits to see if any of them might actually be capable of germinating. I wonder if George Washington’s resurrected cherries would sell out as quickly as his resurrected whiskey did.

Those are just preliminary results. The contents of the bottles will be analyzed thoroughly by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Here is a cool timelapse of the excavation of one of the groups of bottles.