A Day of Archaeology at Monticello

Monticello is perhaps best renowned as the home of Thomas Jefferson — the third president of the US, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the founder of the University of Virginia. What a lot of visitors don’t know is that the house is only part of a larger plantation that spanned 5000 acres with hundreds of free and enslaved occupants. The skills and labor of the 130 slaves who lived at Monticello powered the plantation’s agricultural and industrial enterprises. While Thomas Jefferson left us copious notes and documents about his plantation and its construction and operation, he left a lot out —including the locations of the houses in which enslaved agricultural laborers lived.

Figure 1: Field school students excavation at Site 6

Figure 1: Field school students excavation at Site 6

For the last 20 years, the Monticello Department of Archaeology has been systematically surveying the 2000+ acres owned by Monticello to create a complete inventory of the archaeological resources. Over 30 previously undocumented sites have been discovered. We are working at one of those sites this summer. For the last six weeks, we worked with our field school students to excavate Site 6, a mid-19th-century domestic space for enslaved field workers located approximately 1 mile southeast of the main house. We are now in the process of wrapping up fieldwork for the season. Our staff and students excavated 12 quadrats down to subsoil, or sterile soil devoid of any evidence of human activity.

Here at Monticello, our subsoil is a bright red clay that is rich in iron as a result of the degrading greenstone bedrock. We chose to dig at Site 6 because we are interested in tracing changes in slave lifeways from initial settlement on the region by tobacco planters and their enslaved laborers in the second quarter of the 20th century, through the transition to wheat agriculture in the early 19th century, to the end of the slavery-based plantation system at the Civil War. Previous work at two neighboring sites, Site 7 and Site 8, has yielded important pieces of the story prior to about 1800. Site 6, occupied from about 1800 to 1830, promises to yield the next chapter (Figure 1 above).

Our goal was to find evidence of a slave cabin. In this part of Virginia, physical remains of slave cabins take the form of high concentrations of historic artifacts and, in some cases, a subfloor pit, or storage cellar. We rarely find postholes or foundations since log cabins, which were sill laid, were the type of architecture used for field quarters at Monticello and elsewhere in the region, starting in the early 18th century.

Figure 2: Pearlware shell edge ceramic sherd found at Site 6

Figure 2: Pearlware shell edge ceramic sherd found at Site 6

This summer, we found some cool artifacts, including ceramic sherds of pearlware, creamware, and stoneware, window glass, daub fragments, wrought nails, lead shot, gun flint, furniture tacks, at least ten buttons, a jaw harp, two beads, a spur, a horseshoe, two slate pencil pieces, a tobacco pipe stem fragment, and a buckle (Figure 2 above).

These small personal items, which slaves likely bought or traded for, are helping us better understand the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Monticello. At the end of fieldwork every afternoon, the finds are taken into the lab where they get processed. With the help of our incredible group of volunteers and interns, we wash, label, bag, and box the artifacts from this summer. While the work requires attention to detail, our careful cleaning reveals the true beauty of some of the artifacts held and used by the enslaved people that lived at Site 6 (Figure 3 below).

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The artifacts also get a digital life by being cataloged into our database system called the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). DAACS is an Internet-based initiative designed to foster collaborative research and data sharing among archaeologists. Today we’re cataloging artifacts from a unit that produced a high density of brick, nails, 18th- and 19th-century ceramics, and even buttons (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Monticello Lab assistant Caitlin Hepner cataloging artifacts from Site 6 into DAACS

Figure 4: Monticello Lab assistant Caitlin Hepner cataloging artifacts from Site 6 into DAACS

These data are analyzed to interpret the site and determine where to dig during next year’s field school. Although the field crew will be leaving the site and moving on to their next project, folks in the lab will continue to process the over 1000 artifacts discovered this year. Want to see more of what we found? Follow us on our Archaeology at Monticello Facebook page.