Archaeologists probe for the secrets of a colonial landmark

If you had to choose an iconic example of a colonial Tidewater plantation house, you could do a lot worse than Windsor Castle.

In a National Register of Historic Places nomination submitted in 2000, architectural historian Mary Ruffin Hanbury of the state Department of Historic Resources described the 1 1/2-story, gable-roofed structure and its 1,500-square-foot interior with such terms as “excellent,” “significant,” “handsome” and “striking.”

And even motorists who can’t tell its colonial parts from the Greek Revival have felt the dwelling's irresistible pull as they cross the busy bridge over Cypress Creek and find themselves looking up the hill at the landmark structure.

Despite all the attention the home of Smithfield’s mid-1700s founder has drawn over the years, however, the building and its long history remain cloaked in questions.

Nobody knows exactly when Windsor Castle was built, Hanbury notes — and few records survive to describe how the property developed and changed in the centuries after the first Arthur Smith patented 1,450 acres there in 1637.

That’s why archaeologist Alain Outlaw and his students from Christopher Newport University have spent part of each spring since 2010 probing the ground in search of answers to the dwelling’s secrets.

“People have been debating the future of this site for more than 10 years — and it’s still being studied and debated. So we’re doing what we can to find out more while we still can,” Outlaw says, looking back on a history of development and restoration issues that started well before the house and surrounding property became a 208-acre town park in 2010.

“But all we’ve been able to do is here is pretty limited and episodic. It’s for instructional purposes. So what we’re getting is these little windows into the past that open up for a few weeks and then make you want to come back and open more.”

You can find out more about the Windsor Castle dig when my complete story appears in the Daily Press an on later this week.

-- Mark St. John Erickson

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