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Material Witnesses

Domestic Architecture and Plantation Landscapes in Early Virginia
Camille Wells

BUY Cloth · 328 pp. · 7 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940366 · $75.00 · Apr 2018
BUY Paper · 328 pp. · 7 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940373 · $39.50 · Apr 2018

The Chesapeake region of eastern Virginia and Maryland offers a wealth of evidence for readers and researchers who want to discover what life was like in early America. In this eagerly anticipated volume, Camille Wells, one of the foremost experts on eighteenth-century Virginia architecture, gathers the discoveries unearthed during a career spent studying the buildings and plantations across this geographic area. Drawing on the skills and insights of archaeologists and architectural historians to uncover and make sense of layers of construction and reconstruction, as well as material evidence and records ranging from ceramics, furniture, and textiles to estate inventories and newspaper advertisements, Wells poses meaningful questions about the past and proposes new ways to understand the origins of American society.

The research gathered in this cohesive and engaging collection views the wider history of the colonial and early national periods through the lens of lauded as well as previously unrecorded sites in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. The subjects are equally wide-ranging, from the way domestic architecture articulates problems and possibilities that found forceful expression in the Revolution; to the values and choices made by those who lived in unprepossessing circumstances as well as those who built statement gentry houses intended to dominate the landscape. Other essays address the challenges of discovering historically accurate room functions and furnishings as well as the way Colonial Revival attitudes still dominate much of what is imagined about the early Virginia past. Taken together, these beautifully written and accessible essays will be essential reading for those interested in architecture, material culture, and the ways they reveal the complexities of the nation's history.


Material Witnesses offers an original and substantial contribution to the scholarship of early Virginia, particularly in the fields of architectural history, historical archaeology, material culture studies, and the history of the Chesapeake region. Using multiple lenses and unconventional approaches, Wells clearly demonstrates how scholars in the region have consulted the material record, particularly domestic building complexes, to explore the period from European and African settlement in the New World through the birth of the new nation.

Donald W. Linebaugh, Professor and Director, Historic Preservation Program, University of Maryland, is coeditor of The Saratoga Campaign: Uncovering an Embattled Landscape

"Camille Wells is a clear thinker, an energetic scholar, a precise writer on the matters of history, and a trusted guide in the realms she visits on our behalf. Every essay in this collection stands on a broad foundation of bankable fact, largely the product of her labors in textual and physical sources. Camille’s analysis of quantitative data--and her explanations of significance in past words and things--are equally, and reliably, insightful. Beyond her fine work as an interpreter of distant events, Camille explains how the present generation of Chesapeake historians have transformed their subject through an astonishing body of multidisciplinary work. For these insights, and for this delicious collation of her best work, we are all in her debt."

Mark R. Wenger, Architectural Historian and Restoration Specialist at Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker, Architects

In  Material Witnesses, Camille Wells offers the rich results of a lifetime of exacting fieldwork and documentary research on the buildings and people of eighteenth-century Virginia. The essays she assembles here include valuable overviews using a macro lens—of an early Virginia architectural landscape much less elegant than some writers have asserted; the evolving philosophies of historic restoration and interpretation through several generations; and the development of scholarship that has broadened and deepened architectural historians’ focus. Complementing these broad discussions are close analyses of specific buildings and people viewed through a micro lens, using architectural as well as documentary evidence to tell a human story often quite different from what has been understood previously—whether of eighteenth-century family relationships or of twentieth-century approaches to interpreting historic places.

Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina State University Libraries; author, North Carolina Architecture and Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900

Architectural historian Camille Wells has devoted much of her career to exploring the colonial material world to give us a more realistic picture of the cultural landscape in Virginia's formative centuries. The fruit of her pioneering research is a compilation of nine cogent essays offering revealing perspectives of lifestyle in the Chesapeake region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries...Wells addresses the design process and furnishings of multi-storied houses as well as simple vernacular dwellings. Supplemented with fifty-seven pages of footnotes, this formidably researched compendium contributes revealing facets of colonial Virginia life that few of us knew.

Calder Loth · Virginia Magazine

About the Author(s): 

Camille Wells a founder of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, has taught and worked as an architectural historian throughout the state of Virginia.

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