When it comes to history, there are a few ways that historians can research the past and bring it forward into the present. Old records and documents as well as oral history are potential avenues. Archaeology is another form of historical research.
In this episode of our Mountaintop History podcast Monticello guides Kyle Chattleton and Olivia Brown look at "Site 6," where archaeologists have uncovered thousands of artifacts that are providing new insights into the lives of the enslaved families who once lived there.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
These are the sounds of archaeologists hard at work at Monticello. When it comes to history, there are a few ways that historians can research the past and bring it forward into the present. Old records and documents, as well as oral history are potential avenues. Archaeology is another form of historical research.
Over many decades at Monticello, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of thousands of objects from below the ground. And each one has a story to tell. A lot of the recent archaeology at Monticello has focused on areas where members of the enslaved community lived and labored during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Thomas Jefferson frequently had them move across his plantation. Such events created instability for families, meaning, for example, that it was difficult to make improvements like cultivating a nearby garden, which could have long-term payoffs. The end result might lead to inequality between households. Monticello’s archaeologists believe that Site 6 might be an example of this reality.
Crystal O'Connor, Archaeological Field Research Manager at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, explains.
Crystal O'Connor: Hi, I'm Crystal O'Connor and I'm the Archaeological Field Research Manager. You're joining us today at Site 6. This is a spot at Monticello which is located about a half mile down slope from the main house. We're currently standing on what was the working farm or the plantation. I'm joined today by my colleagues Craig Kelley, Sarah Corkett, Cameron Wooddell, and our intern Macey Clerkley. We're excited to show you today Site 6, and what we have found and what we found out about the people who lived here.
This site was occupied from about 1790 until a little after Jefferson's death in about 1826.
The way we found this site is a result of one of our ongoing research programs here in the department called Plantation Survey. This is an effort that started in 1997. Each winter, we go out onto the property and try to do archaeological survey on the acreage that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation owns. It's about half of the original 5,000 acres, so we own about 2,500 acres of that original property. We go out with a piece of surveying equipment called a total station, and we shoot in a shovel test pit, a hole about a foot in diameter. We dig about a foot down until we reach sterile subsoil. In this case, it's a bright red clay in this part of Virginia. Subsoil has not been interacted with or affected by human occupation or interaction. We screen all of our dirt and we take anything we find, including artifacts from whatever site we may come across, back to our lab. We traverse across the landscape in this manner, and we kind of are digging along a grid. So, we dig at 40 foot intervals. Anytime we find artifacts, we shrink the interval down to 20 feet.
In this case, back in 1997, we came across Site 6. The shovel test pit survey indicated that we had three artifact concentrations. Further research since 1997 has confirmed those three concentrations.
Cabins during this time would have been pretty ephemeral on the landscape. These cabins didn't have any architectural foundations — the bottom sill was put right on top of the ground. We can't find these cabins architecturally, but we can find evidence of them archaeologically.
Back to those three artifact concentrations. For the past nine summers we've been out here at Site 6 investigating the three concentrations further. These concentrations show us where cabins were located. We find evidence of ceramics, nails, bottle glass, window glass, personal items, such as beads, buttons, buckles.
As archaeologists, we're always interested in how assemblages compare with one another. Here at Site 6, we're interested in comparing the three cabins on this site. The Southern Cabin has evidence of more creamware. Creamware is a type of ceramic that was produced between 1760 and about 1820. The Southern Cabin has a lot more creamware. The Northern Cabin has a lot more pearlware, which was produced later from about 1779 until about 1830. So, when we find these two types of artifacts in close proximity, we say, well maybe the Southern Cabin was occupied before the Northern Cabin, since it has more creamware. Things like ceramics and nails help us date a site, so we look to those artifacts to help us investigate when sites were occupied.
We looked for another independent artifact class that would help confirm the temporal occupation of these sites. In this case, we look to nails. Wrought nails are earlier than cut nails, and both were made here on the property. If the Southern Cabin was occupied earlier than the Northern Cabin, we would expect to see a lot more wrought nails in the Southern cabin. When we compare the ratio of wrought to cut nails, we see that in fact, the ratio is nearly identical. That makes us think that the cabins were occupied in fact, at the same time.
When we do find artifacts, all of the artifact information, including measurements and weights and ceramic wares and types of nails goes into our DAACS Online Database, daacs.org. You can go online and check out sites that we've cataloged into there previously.
Each summer at Site 6, we invite and welcome field school students to come from all over the country, come and help us excavate and learn how to do archaeology, learn how to do lab methods. This is a really important part of education as a young archaeologist. This summer we didn't have that field school, but hopefully we're looking forward to doing additional field schools in the future.
Olivia Brown: With thousands of artifacts turning up at these sites, members of our Archaeology staff have found a few things that stand out. Often, it's not just the artifact itself that's interesting — though that is a part of it — but it's the stories these artifacts tell. Here are a few of the favorite pieces our staff has found at Site 6.
Chris Devine: Hi, I'm Chris Devine. I'm a Lab Analyst in the Department of Archaeology at Monticello. I'd like to talk to you about one of my favorite artifacts that were found here at Site 6. The artifacts I'd like to talk about are called jaw harps. A jaw harp was a small musical instrument that you would put in your mouth and would hold with one hand and pluck the other side with your other hand.
So a little bit of history of jaw harps. Jaw harps during the 18th and early 19th century were produced primarily in Great Britain and Europe and exported over to America. We know from newspaper advertisements that jaw harps were commonly listed in merchandise that was being sold by merchants. We also know from other archaeological evidence and documentary evidence that jaw harps were obtained by people from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
That kind of gets me to our jaw harps here and why we think they're so unique. The four jaw harps that were found at Site 6 were found in units associated with the Northern Cabin where we believed enslaved laborers lived. There were two other cabins here as well, we believe. We did not find any jaw harp fragments in those areas. The reason that's significant is that this is the largest assemblage of jaw harps found at any site at Monticello.
So, what does that tell us, basically? Well, there's a couple of theories we have. First of all, maybe the fact that there were so many jaw harps at the Northern Cabin is indicative of the fact that there was a musician there. Musicians, if they were adept at playing the jaw harp could play with two in their mouth, and if you had real skill at it, you could play multiple jaw harps and switch them out. Another reason that there might've been an abundance of jaw harps at the Northern Cabin has to do with some other artifacts that we find as well. We found an abundance of ceramics, especially higher-end ceramics and personal items, such as buckles, buttons, beads. This suggests that there might've been social stratification amongst the enslaved people that were living at this particular site. The Northern Cabin, perhaps had a group of people that were able to produce things in their gardens and sell them to have some type of disposable income. Whereas maybe the individuals that were occupying the Southeastern and Southwestern Cabins did not have that ability for whatever reasons. So jaw harps are a very interesting find that we've discovered here at Site 6.
Cameron Wooddell: Hello, my name is Cameron Wooddell and I'm an Archaeological Field Technician here at Monticello, and I'm going to talk about my favorite artifact at Site 6 today. The last field season, 2019, we actually found this one-cent piece. It is the Liberty Coronet one-cent piece. Essentially it's a penny, and it was minted between 1816 and 1839.
Why it has become my favorite artifact out here at Site 6 is because it verifies a lot of the hypotheses that we have out here, especially from the Northern Cabin. This demonstrates that this Northern Cabin area actually may have had larger residential stability than the Southeastern and the Southwestern cabin sites. They're able to participate in the local economy with additional goods that they are producing, such as agricultural goods, possibly other hunting and procuring small game around this site, and they're able to sell it to the Jeffersons or even the local economy. So this shows some of the social stratification of the enslaved peoples, even living at the site, as well as the enslaved people and how they're participating in local economies.
Olivia Brown: It's exciting for us to share the work our colleagues are passionate about and the amazing things they learn through the archaeological excavation of locations like Site 6. The more we explore the Monticello plantation as a whole, the more we are able to discover information like this. We're able to use archaeological evidence to learn more about the lives of enslaved people, whose experience is often absent from the documentary record.
Special thank you to members of our archaeological staff — Crystal O'Connor, Chris Devine, and Cameron Wooddell — for sharing these finds.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
If you’re interested in learning more about archaeology at Monticello, join us for our Walking Tours on February 18th and future tours in the summer. Tickets and more information can be found on our website.
Olivia Brown: Visit us online at Monticello.org.