Reading Jefferson’s Landscape

Archaeologists are studying the landscape of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to understand the dramatic changes that took place there in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

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Recent fieldwork adjacent to the mansion has revealed important changes in the ornamental landscape. Credit: Mark East.
Recent fieldwork adjacent to the mansion has revealed important changes in the ornamental landscape. Credit: Mark East.

Winter 2017: By David Malakoff.

At first glance, it might not seem like much for archaeologists to work with. At Monticello there are microscopic grains of pollen that wafted from pine and oak trees more than 200 years ago and became buried at the bottom of a muddy stream. Some bricks and patches of discolored sediment that mark the locations of earthen pits that once sat hidden beneath the floorboards of slave quarters. Handfuls of ceramic sherds and rusty nails, some broken or bent. One half of a shattered porcelain plate discovered a half-mile from its mate.

These humble finds, however, are helping archaeologists reveal a tale of profound social, economic, and ecological upheaval at the home of one of America’s most famous founding fathers. Over the past few decades, researchers working at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s iconic home in central Virginia, have acquired a clearer understanding of how the sprawling plantation evolved during the life of the remarkable man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s third president, and founded the University of Virginia.

Painstaking fieldwork—including the systematic digging of over 20,000 shovel test pits—has yielded new insights into how Jefferson ran his plantation, treated the approximately 600 enslaved people he owned during his lifetime, and reacted to the dramatic economic and political changes in Europe and North America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This past summer, researchers helped document important spaces linked to Jefferson’s elegant brick mansion, including a room used by Sally Hemings, the enslaved African-American who historians believe gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children, as well as an elaborate brick stove used by Hemings’ brothers to prepare the French cuisine Jefferson savored.

Excerpt.

Read More in our Winter 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4.             Browse Content of this Issue: WINTER 2017.

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