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Celebrating Black History Month with the Archaeology Family Workshop

Beth Sawyer

One of the favourite parts of my job as an archaeological analyst at Monticello is presenting our research to visitors.  I love the opportunity to tell the story of those who made Monticello their home hundreds of years ago.  Things as simple as broken dishes, lost buttons, and discarded tobacco pipes can give incredible insights into the daily lives on this plantation.

Historic artifacts recovered from excavations at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

In particular, Thomas Jefferson's enslaved workers are given a voice through the items they left behind.  Descriptions of the daily lives of the enslaved community are mostly absent in Jefferson's documents; however, it is brought to light through archaeological exavations and artifact analysis.  Archaeological research helps reveal details about slaves' living quarters, their diet, and even what they chose to purchase with their own money.  It can also provide clues as to who occupied a site.  The discovery of a large number of sewing items, for example, mnight hint at a woman living in a house, whereas the presence of porcelain doll parts might indicate a child's presence.  The trash of past people truly becomes a treasure trove of information!

Archaeologist assisting Family Workshop participant in identifying artifacts.

Each year, the Archaeology Family Workshop provides an opportunity for our younger guests and their families to engage with the archaeological process.  Guests learn about the archaeological method employed at Monticello and how artifacts—and where they are found—continue to help us better understand the lives of enslaved workers.

Last year, I was excited to connect with our young guests as we explored artifacts found at Monticello and to hear their insightful observations.  I was impressed not only by their enthusiasm, but by their ability to really make the connection between an artifact and a person.  While daily processing artifacts, I sometimes too easily forget to stop and think about the hands that last held a teacup before it broke, or that smoked the pipe that is now in my hand.  The students helped me to remember that direct link to the past.

Family Workshop participant catalogues artifacts.

At this year's Archaeology Family Workshop, we will be conducting a mock archaeological excavation, handling and assessing real artifacts, and discussing our methods of archaeological research as well as some of our recent discoveries at Monticello.  I am once again excited to be a part of this fun and engaging program.  If you have a child in grades 4-7 and are looking for a new way to learn about history, please add us to your calendar!

The Archaeology Department is pleased to collaborate with the Education and Visitor Programs Department in presenting this workshop.  For other family-friendly experiences at Monticello, check out our Families and Teachers page for information about Family Friendly Tours, summer camps, Home Educators' Day, and more!

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