Unearthing Treasures at Gunston Hall

Unearthing Treasures at Gunston Hall

Monthly archeology tours gives visitors clues to history.

Unlike George Washington, who left detailed descriptions of his Mount Vernon Estate, there is very little documentation about George Mason's plantation home, Gunston Hall. As a result, the efforts of archeologists such as Dave Shonyo, are critical to unearthing the secrets of the grounds.

Shonyo said that archeologists found ruins of a burned kitchen in the 1970's, so that has been recreated. Other than that, the only tantalizing descriptions of the estate comes from Mason's son, John, who wrote recollections of time spent with this father in the 1840 timeframe. He talks about slave quarters to the east, but it's very vague. He does mention that from the porch they could see nine-tenths of their land, so it is clear that the large trees that appear today did not exist then. There is talk about removing some of those trees.

"Unlike many plantation houses, there are no records of what it looks like; all records were lost, so we're trying to recreate the landscape," said Shonyo. "The focus has been on recreating the formal gardens, most of which has been plowed over the years. It's an interesting exercise trying to piece it together."

Last month, special tours were held as part of garden week which focused on The Hunt for George Mason's Garden. These tours spoke about some of the discoveries that have been unearthed in Gunston Hall's formal gardens. Visitors to the plantation can continue to share in this experience during the Hidden History Archeology Tours, which are held the fourth Saturday of every month.

Shonyo said that the tour lasts around 45 minutes, during which time he takes visitors around and explains what he and others have found so far, and what he still hopes to find. Volunteers are also welcome to work on the excavations as well.

Shonyo said that the excavation they are currently working on is an exciting one. They have unearthed a rocky mass, which they have been able to date to Mason's era based on the glass and the ceramic that they have collected. Shonyo believes that it is on the fringe of the garden and hopes that it will yield some clues as to the shape and size of the gardens. Perhaps they'll find remnants of a fenceline, which Allan Brown, landscape historian, thinks might have separated the working part of the garden from the formal one.


Gunston Hall Plantation is located at 10709 Gunston Road, Mason Neck, and can be reached by calling 703-550-9220. Four weekend theme tours are offered that present a more in-depth look at slavery, women's roles on the plantation, farm life, and the discoveries being made in George Mason's garden. Reservations are not required. Special tours are included in the regular admission.

HIDDEN HISTORY ARCHAEOLOGY TOURS are held the fourth Saturday of the month, from April-October at 12, 1:30, & 3 p.m.

SLAVE LIFE TOURS are held the first Sunday of the month, April-October at 12, 1:30, & 3 p.m. Visitors tour the museum, outbuildings, and slave quarter site to find out more about the slaves of Gunston Hall, including stories of individuals who ran away.

WORLD OF WOMEN TOURS are held the second Sunday of the month, April-October at 12, 1:30, & 3 p.m. Tour participants explore what it was like to be a woman - gentry, middling, or enslaved รณ on Virginia and Maryland plantations.

BEHIND THE SCENES FARMYARD TOURS are held the third Saturday of the month, April-October at 12, 1:30, & 3 p.m. Come meet the farm animals and discover the importance of these breeds on George Mason's plantation. Learn about 18th-century crops from the Farm Manager as you tour the pasture and farm yard.

In addition to the weekend tours, there are many other activities including:


Camp for children will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in July and August from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Young detectives and their parents complete a Sleuth Score Card as they look for important clues to solve 18th-century mysteries. Guided mansion tour included in cost: $5 children ages 6 - 12, free for children under age 6. Regular admission for adults. Groups of 10 or more may reserve a tour any day of the week at $4 for children ages 6 - 12.


Camp for youngsters 8 to 12 will be held Monday, July 12 - Friday, July 16: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Campers will explore what life was like in Virginia over 200 years ago at this interactive camp. Archaeology, garden projects, games, and storytelling are just some of the history-related pastimes your children will experience. Reservations are required. Call 703-550-9220 to receive a brochure. Price of $150 includes T-shirt, snacks, disposable camera, writing journal, and Friday luncheon.