SMITHFIELD — If you had to choose an iconic example of a 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."
Even drivers who can't tell its colonial parts from the Greek Revival have felt the landmark structure's irresistible pull as they cross the busy bridge over Cypress Creek and find themselves looking up the hill at its façade and eye-catching quartet of chimneys.
Despite the attention the home of Smithfield's founder has drawn over the years, the building and its long history remain cloaked in questions. For example, 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 in Smithfield 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 said. The saga of development and restoration issues 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," Outlaw said. "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."
Constructed by the first Smith's descendants, Windsor Castle teems with architectural evidence of its colonial origins.
But exactly what it looked like or how old or big it was when Arthur Smith IV established the neighboring town of Smithfield in 1750 remains uncertain.
"We don't even know which Arthur Smith built it — or how much of the house was there when the town was founded," said curator Tracey Neikirk of the Isle of Wight Museum, which plans to mount an exhibit exploring artifacts from the dig.
"And every time we find out something we didn't know before, it seems to lead to more questions."
The existing dwelling retains considerable evidence of an early-19th-century-remodeling, too, including numerous striking, perhaps even unique Greek Revival details that Hanbury dates to the first few years after the property passed from the Smiths to Watson Pendleton Jordan in 1838.
But two discoveries made by Outlaw and his students since 2010 have complicated the story of the house's change and development over time with clues that point to a previously unknown chapter.
Surveying the interior of the brick basement, the archaeologist found recently exposed areas of the plastered walls that show the southeast room was laid in English bond, a pattern typical of the 1700s.
The other sections of the basement to the north and west appear to be laid in three-course American bond, suggesting a significant expansion of the building as well as a later date of construction.
Adding to the weight of these clues in the southeast room is evidence of a window surround that was later chiseled out and enlarged into a passageway.
"This is an earlier basement that they just blasted through — probably sometime around 1811," Outlaw said.
"And it shows a much earlier stage in the building's history than was previously thought."
Outlaw and his students found supporting evidence in 2013, when they unearthed part of an unusually large early-19th-century trash pit in the house's southeast yard.
Though only partly explored, the pit gave up a large array of artifacts dating from about 1811 back to the town's founding — all of it apparently swept up and disposed of at the same time.
"It's almost like they were cleaning out the house," the archaeologist said in describing a collection of objects that ranges from George I and George II coins to a collected American Indian projectile point as well as fragments of a glass bell jar, French wine bottles and English ceramics.
"We've found thousands of things in this one pit — and they're telling us that whoever owned them was very wealthy, had refined tastes and was probably a very serious gardener and student of nature."
This year's dig just to the east of the pit has turned up evidence of a different sort providing the first inkling of what the Smith property may have looked like in the 1700s.
Unlike the two long lines of late-19th and early-20th-century granaries and outbuildings that stretch to the southeast of the house today, the colonial-era structures appear to have clustered much closer, Outlaw said.
But even back then, the Smiths were enjoying the Southern dish that has since made their namesake town world-famous.
"What a surprise!" Outlaw jokes, holding up a hog tooth unearthed on the last afternoon of the 2014 spring dig.
"They were eating ham in what became the ham capital of the world."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.Copyright © 2015, CT Now