Fort Germanna

Searching for the Fort — Finding a Changing Landscape

2016 Germanna Archaeology Staff and VCU Field School

The 2016 Day of Archaeology finds the Germanna Foundation and Germanna Archaeology in very different circumstances than one year ago. The 2015 Day of Archaeology found us stabilizing an archaeological site dug more than 20 years ago and largely untouched since. That work has proven successful and the old excavations are safely covered and secured.

This year finds Germanna Archaeology nearing the end of its inaugural excavation season and the first excavations at the site in over 20 years.  The Foundation brought on Amelia Chisholm as Assistant Field Director, and four seasonal Archaeological Technicians — Marissa Kulis, Emily Lew, Rachel Manning and Zoe Rahsman. We were most fortunate to partner with Dr. Bernard Means and the Anthropology program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  We gladly hosted the Field School consisting of nine capable students to round out Germanna’s 2016 Archaeology Team.  The goal for this inaugural season was to find more of the palisade walls for the 1714 Fort Germanna and better define it on the historic landscape.

Palisade Trench found and defined in the 1990s

Palisade Trench found and defined in the 1990s

The Fort’s location is known only through a segment of a linear feature found in 1992.  The palisade trench is interrupted at each of its ends by the significant foundations of Virginia’s Lt. Governor, Alexander Spotswood’s “Enchanted Castle” built on the site in the 1720s. While this provided evidence of the Fort’s location, the full limits of the larger Fort’s structure, even today, remain undefined.

Historic descriptions of the Fort suggest it was 5 sided wooden palisade with each side measuring 300 feet (ca 100m).  Such a finished structure encloses 154,843 square feet (14,385 m2) or around 3.55 acres.  For stewardship of these unique historic resources, both the Germanna Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia wish to better understanding of the layout of the 1714 Fort.

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Clearing the trench before end of Field School

This summer’s excavations sought to find more of the palisade trench along with evidence of the changing historic landscape that both preceded and followed the Fort’s short use on colonial Virginia’s frontier.  Over the course of this season’s small scale excavations, Archaeologists and students have uncovered a rich and complex landscape though the remains of the palisade have eluded us.  We have found tools made from gunflints.  We have found colonial era ceramics along with hand wrought nails.  We have identified 19th-century artifacts and the edges of 19th century agricultural fields.  There has been much fun and excitement along with the warm temperatures of the last few weeks.

Sadly, yesterday was the Field School’s last day at the site.  Germanna Archaeology is preparing to wrap up fieldwork over the next couple of weeks.  Taking advantage of the quiet today, the remaining staff is working on washing artifacts in the lab and getting ready to shift work into the lab for the next phase of processing and analysis.

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Molded stoneware found in plowzone


Washing finds and recapping the season today, this “Day of Archaeology”

Looking back to last year’s Day of Archaeology, our progress is remarkable. Germanna Archaeology is a small operation.  Starting a new archaeology program is difficult.  It’s exciting to see the new research questions and future possibilities arising from these initial efforts to better define the cultural resources of Germanna.  Hoping for even greater reports for next year’s Day of Archaeology.


2015 Day of Archaeology — Open House for the Fort Germanna/Enchanted Castle Site


I like the idea – a day exploring what Archaeologists really do. People generally think of us “finding stuff.” Well, this year my Day of Archaeology is a little different than that…

Eight months ago I started a new position as the Archaeologist for the Germanna Foundation. The Foundation is steward for several historic properties in Orange and Culpeper Counties in Virginia, USA. The oldest – the one needing most of my attention—was the site of a 1714, palisaded fort.

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Artists conception of Fort Germanna.

Fort Germanna was settled by several German immigrant families sent to Virginia’s Frontier by Colonial Lt. Governor, Alexander Spotswood. The men from these families were designated “Rangers” as their presence was meant as a buffer for the English colonial settlements to the east. These German immigrants were also indentured to Spotswood and for 4 years they worked the land around the Fort. Around 1720, the fort walls were removed and a new residence for Spotswood was built at the site. Spotswood’s new mansion, reminiscent of the Governor’s Palace he’d helped oversee in Williamsburg, was built in the wilderness some 20 miles west of nearest settlement. One prominent visitor to Spotswood’s estate deemed the structure the “Enchanted Castle” and the name stuck.

During the 1970s, American Archaeologists grew increasingly curious about the location of this “Enchanted Castle.” By the end of the decade they had found man made terraces and located foundation ruins from the building. It sat known but undisturbed until threatened by a development plan during the 1980s. Elizabeth Schneider and Historic Gordonsville, Inc. were fundamental in purchasing the property and saving the site. Archaeology of the Enchanted Castle began in the mid-80s, first as “salvage archaeology” which attempted to recover as much information as possible before the site was destroyed. Once the site was no longer threatened, a more systematic study of the structure was begun. Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington) became involved and their Archaeology Professor, Dr. Douglas Sanford, oversaw excavations through 1995 when funding ran out. Since that time, no further archaeology has been done.

In late 2013, the property for the Enchanted Castle and Fort Germanna Sites was entrusted to The Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia, Inc. (The Germanna Foundation). The intent is to restart archaeology at the site. One of my first and most important tasks is the stabilization of the previous archaeology. The site was cleaned up and the vegetation that had grown up over the years removed. We then needed to fill-in (not dig up!) the site so that the old excavations and ruined foundations no longer collected water from rain and run-off.

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Bringing in fill…

I mapped the areas that needed to be covered and calculated the volume of fill needed. Then I waited for the weather to cooperate (we had a wet winter here in Virginia). It wasn’t until May that I was able to get truckloads of fill material delivered to the site. Once that was done, it was a matter of moving the soils into place. By mid-July we were close to finished. Most of the 20 truckloads of fill that was brought in was spread across the site (by hand!). The deepest excavations are now leveled, and I no longer need to bail out the site every time it rains. The remaining resources are safely protected under the fill. When the time comes to undertake new excavations on the Enchanted Castle, it will be waiting for us to uncover it once again.

On 16 July 2015, we celebrated our “Day of Archaeology” with an Open House at the Site. Members of the Germanna Foundation – many of them descendants of the original German settlers – came out to visit. We marked the location of the Enchanted Castle and put up interpretive signs explaining what was discovered in the 1980s and 90s excavations. We also marked the location of the small segment of the palisade wall found from the 1714 Fort.


Signage explaining the small section of the palisade wall found in 1994.


Larsen speaking with visitors to the site.


Dr. Means setting up his table of printed “artifacts.”












Dr. Bernard Means, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, set up a display of “virtual artifacts” that he has collected from Virginia and the world. Dr. Means and his students have scanned artifacts from numerous sites and then printed them with a 3D scanner. While we have yet to re-start excavations, we hope to have artifacts to scan for next year. Our next goal is to begin better defining the perimeter of Fort Germanna. Maybe we’ll find some “stuff.”