Dynamic Diets at Monticello

In 2009, members of the Monticello Archaeology staff teamed up with zoological archaeologist Joanne Bowen from Colonial Williamsburg to present a collaborative academic poster at the Society for American Archaeology annual conference. The following is a summary of that research.


From the 1770s to the 1820s, Monticello was home to Thomas Jefferson, his family, and over two hundred enslaved field hands, craftspeople, and domestic workers. Monticello slaves used hoe-based farming methods to grow tobacco for Atlantic markets until the 1790s, when Jefferson shifted to the plow-based cultivation of wheat. This shift led to alterations in agricultural ecology, slave work routines, and where people lived on the mountain. How else did this change affect the daily lives of those living at Monticello? In our analysis, we investigated something at the heart of daily life: diet. Specifically, we asked the following two questions:

  • Does the consumption of different animals change through time?
  • If so, are the trends linked to the late 18th-century shift in agricultural practices and corresponding changes to the plantation landscape?

Changing Landscapes

Jefferson’s documents indicate that he changed his farming focus from tobacco to wheat in the 1790s. With this change came a whole new method of farming: crop rotations. Fields were periodically planted in crops such as wheat, barley, and corn and were also left fallow for pasture. This excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book records details about the 1796 wheat harvest at Monticello. Note the number of fields sown in wheat, totaling 300 acres.1

The impact this new farming regime had on the mountain is visible in archaeological deposits. Analysis of historic pollen gathered from sediments near retaining walls on the mountain revealed a dynamic landscape history of Monticello Plantation. These sediment profiles show slash-and-burn deforestation was the agricultural strategy during the time when tobacco was the staple crop (1740-1790). The most significant change came with the move to a more diversified agriculture scheme centered around wheat (1795-1830), which resulted in permanent fields, rotation of crops, and the total loss of forest along Monticello’s eastern and southern slopes.2

What impact did this dramatic change to the environment have on the people living at Monticello? Did it alter their daily diet?

To answer these questions, we investigated animal bones from archaeological deposits on the top of the mountain, where bone preservation is higher and where the Jefferson household, free, and enslaved workers lived and interacted daily. We analyzed artifacts from five Mulberry Row slave dwellings (Buildings l, o, r, s, and t) and from the Western Kitchen Yard adjacent to the main house. Artifact data was generated by the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). Each site was divided into “phases,” which are groups of artifact assemblages that are inferred to be broadly contemporary. All faunal material was catalogued by The Colonial Williamsburg Faunal Laboratory and then integrated into the DAACS database.

The Data

Our analysis used “abundance indices,” which in our case are indices that calculate the percentage of a given animal species’ bones relative to a species that remains constant through time. We used pig as our constant because archaeological and documentary evidence agree that salt pork was the meat staple of the slave diet in the Chesapeake beginning in the late seventeenth century.3,4  Hence, for a given species, the index is:

Once we computed the index values, we plotted them against what we call “mean ceramic dates,” or MCDs. These dates are derived by computing the weighted average of the ceramic production dates for ceramics in a given deposit. In other words, MCDs provide an estimated date for when a deposit was created. Finally, a generalized linear model was calculated to statistically evaluate change, or lack thereof, through time. Combined with our index graphs, this linear model creates a clear illustration of trends through time and whether or not these trends are statistically significant.

Emerging Patterns

After giving our faunal artifacts this statistical treatment, what did we find? First, our analysis found that through time the quantity of animals that were hunted or trapped on the mountain declined.

For example, the consumption of deer declined as wheat agriculture became common on the mountain. While never a large component of diet, this trend suggests a relationship with habitat or population depletion.

There is one noticeable exception to this wildlife trend. Unlike other wildlife on the mountain, rabbit consumption increased through time. This makes sense, though, if we think in terms of animals that would fare better with a less wooded habitat. Fields were cleared and periodically left fallow, creating an increase in land hospitable to rabbits. Rabbit consumption increased after 1790, coinciding with the timing of this landscape change.

However, a historical account from one of Jefferson’s former slaves punches a possible hole in this theory. Isaac, a tinsmith, recounted: “Old Master had a great many rabbits…Had a rabbit house (a warren) –a long rock house…used to eat ‘em at Monticello.”5 Determining to what extent rabbits at Monticello were trapped or raised or both will be a focus of future research.

Finally, did we find any discernable difference between what was consumed on Mulberry Row versus the Jefferson household? Recent analysis of the features and deposits in the West Kitchen Yard area suggests that those assemblages are predominantly Jefferson household deposits.6 However, as seen in this faunal analysis, the taxonomic abundances of the West Kitchen Yard assemblages are comparable to those of the Mulberry Row slave dwellings. This may indicate that the West Kitchen Yard deposits are comprised of a mixture of Jefferson household and enslaved worker refuse.

One subtle difference between the West Kitchen Yard and Mulberry Row deposits is visible in the relatively large proportion of turkeys, geese, and ducks found in the West Kitchen Yard. Historical documents indicate that these animals were purchased and consumed by the Jefferson family, a trend which appears to be captured in this faunal analysis.

To Sum Up  

The species-level abundance indices suggest answers to both of our research questions. There is a marked change through time in the abundance of most of the animals we investigated and that shift does appear to correlate with our understanding of the elaborate landscape modifications necessary for the production of wheat.

In addition, the West Kitchen Yard includes Jefferson household deposits, yet only subtly differs from the Mulberry Row assemblages. Future analysis made possible by NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) funding will incorporate deposits and assemblages from the remaining structures along Mulberry Row, creating an even more detailed picture of the dynamic diets of Monticello’s inhabitants.


1Jefferson, Thomas. Farm Book 1766-1824 [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003, p.54. Available: http://www.thomasjeffersonpapers.org/

2Neiman, Fraser, Sara Bon-Harper, John Jones, Julie K. Stein, and Derek Wheeler.  Landscape Dynamics at Monticello: a geoarchaeological perspective. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, 2002.

3Fashing, Maria T. "Recognizing Variability in Eighteenth-Century Plantation Diet through Pattern Analysis." Bachelor's thesis, College of William and Mary, 2005

4Graham, W., C. L. Hudgins, C. R. Lounsbury, F. D. Neiman, and J. P. Whittenburg. Adaptation and Innovation: Archaeological and Architectural Perspectives on the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. William and Mary Quarterly 64:451–522. 2007.

5Bear, James A., ed. Jefferson at Monticello. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1967.

6Clites, Elizabeth and Lynsey Bates. Whose Trash is This? Unraveling Ethnostratigraphy on Monticello Mountain.  Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, 2008.

This blog entry is a summary of the collaborative academic poster presentation:

Clites, Elizabeth, Joanne Bowen, Fraser Neiman, and Karen Smith (2009). Dynamic Diets: New insights into faunal resource use at Monticello Plantation. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Atlanta, Georgia.

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