It is said that progress is made only by building over the bones of our ancestors. In a very literal sense, that much has proven true. Over the years, we have continually built our new architectural marvels, our cities, everything in fact, over the remains of ancient civilizations.
Bacon’s Castle, otherwise known as “Allen’s Brick House” or the “Arthur Allen House”, is one of America’s oldest surviving brick dwellings. When the preservation society responsible for it began a new restoration project a few years back, they never expected to find anything but untouched soil. They were wrong…
It began, as many of these discoveries do, with some blueprints for a new feature. The owners of Bacon’s Castle in Surrey, Virginia, who currently utilize the building as a historic house museum, needed to put in a new parking spot for their handicapped patrons. The process was initiated by the current owners of the castle, Preservation Virginia.
Preservation Virginia, which was founded in 1889 as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, was the United States’ first statewide historic preservation group. It was their organization who hired restoration craftsman Mike Adams and tasked him to work on the new handicapped parking spot. Of course, it wasn’t the only time the castle had been worked on over the years…
Ye Olde Castle
It was the year of our lord, 1665, when Arthur Allen I decided to build a high style Jacobean brick house for him and his wife Alice. Surrey County, where the house still resides, was barely a colony back then, but because of this, any landowner would do what he wanted with his property. Arthur Allen wanted a manor house.
It has been over 350 years since the house was built and since then, diggers, contractors, and even some cultural archeologists have made rather interesting discoveries in the many hidden corners of the 5,300 square foot landmark. One of the first happened when Preservation Virginia first acquired the house in 1974…
The four story building was purchased in 1974 and since that time, archaeologists have eased their shovels into the grounds hundreds of times. Of course, not every new restorative effort has uncovered new evidence of the lives of the people who lived in Bacon’s Castle. Still, for as many duds, there have been just as many new insights into that seemingly unknown period.
Arthur Allen II
Major Arthur Allen II inherited the property when his father died in 1669. When he was elected speaker in the House of Burgesses in 1686, he decided to show off a bit by setting aside 1.5 acres of valuable cropland to build a Pleasure Garden, which was all the rage in England at the time. Yet, we didn’t learn any of this until Preservation Virginia bought the place and started digging…
When the contractors started digging in the 1970’s they turned up evidence of that long lost garden, which as it happens was one of the first such gardens in the United States. These pleasure gardens were open to the public and would feature things like: concert halls, bandstands, amusement rides, zoos, and menageries in later iterations.
That remarkable find ended up measuring longer than a football field and proved to the world that Bacon’s Castle, named for Nathaniel Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion fame, who used it as a fort, was not done revealing its secrets to the world. The next subterranean surprise came in 2015, with the aforementioned lot…
In 2015, when Mike Adams began digging, he thought he was just going to be hitting a bit of soil and the occasional rock. He never realized that he might be among the chosen few to dig at Bacon’s Castle and hit actual paydirt. About six inches into the ground, his shovel struck against something long, flat, and hard.
They had dug straight into a patch of old brick and mortar. Not only that, but the inside of the brick was heavily laden with bits of oyster shell. They began digging even deeper, taking care to carve around what was some large U-shaped thing. In a few hours they had uncovered a previously unseen feature of the ancient manor house…
Mike’s team had unearthed the U-shaped outline of a massive fireplace in the dirt just outside the east corner of the home. It measured more than 10 feet long. That amazing find was quickly followed by the discovery of a second, equally immense firebox that looked as though it butted back against the first and faced in the other direction.
Now a giant, two directional fireplace is not uncommon a building as large and as consistently opulent as Bacon’s Castle. But a popular house like the one owned by Major Arthur Allen II, would have kept some record of such an ostentatious and costly piece of architecture. Yet there was no record whatsoever. It was a completely new find…
The digging continued until the entire fireplace, otherwise known as a chimney base, was uncovered from beneath the proposed handicapped spot location. According to experts, it’s very possible that the chimney was part of a long-since-demolished kitchen built in the time of Arthur Allen II.
Kitchen and Laundry
“This was a very substantial building,” explains Nick Luccketti, head of the James River Institute for Archaeology. “It probably combined the function of a kitchen with that of a laundry or a brewery. And it dates back to the late 1600s or early 1700s, when Arthur Allen II was reshaping the landscape here to reflect his status as one of the most powerful men in Virginia.” Still, the question remained, how could they date it?
Luccketti believes that Allen would have erected the new kitchen during the early 1700s, at a time when the Allen family was very prosperous. It would have replaced the original facility, which was located in the basement of the house. The new fireplace would represent a larger and better-equipped detached structure.
“This was a time when the Allen family was very prosperous…they could afford the add on” Luccketti says, describing an During Arthur Allen II’s 40-year tenure, the estate would grow from 2,000 to nearly 10,000 acres. This of course was mainly due to their plantation size and the low overhead they experienced by working the land with slave labor…
Over the years, the subsequent owners of Bacon’s Castle faced many hardships due to war in the country. When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished at last, the final owner’s of the house were forced to sell off most of the property to make ends meet and allow for their children’s educations.
Inside the chimneys, the team of archeologists uncovered a large expanse of scorched, orange-colored soil which they may test with archaeomagnetic dating. This could determine the last time that fire was hot enough to reorient the ions in the ground to magnetic north and thus tell them when it was last lit…
“What we’re seeing here is that Bacon’s Castle continued to grow and develop after the original house was completed,” Added Director of Museum Operations, Jennifer Hurst-Wender. She went on to explain how excited she was that their stewardship of the site has managed to preserve so many important discoveries over the years.
The investigation did not probe beyond the planned parking spot, for fear of delving too deeply and damaging more vital clues held beneath the earth. Nevertheless, the chimney is a remarkable find and just one more clue as to the way the Allen family lived. Still, we’re sure there are many more mysteries to be found over the next 350 years.