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Into the Woods!

Fraser D. Neiman

First Archaeology Workshop Tours Monticello Mountain

Monticello’s archaeologists hosted the first in a series of four Archaeology Workshops on Saturday, April 23. Visitors joined archaeology staff members for a 2.5-mile walk across the southern slopes of Monticello Mountain. The group visited archaeological sites that were once home to Monticello’s enslaved workers and overseers and the agricultural fields in which they labored.  These sites have only recently been discovered by the ongoing Monticello Plantation Archaeological Survey.  The group also considered the above-ground traces of Jefferson’s lost plantation world, traces that can be seen in the modern landscape, including variation in tree-species composition, erosion gullying, and rock walls. Pollen trapped in eroded sediment that that has accumulated behind these walls provides a detailed record of the expansion of Jefferson’s agricultural fields, as well as what grew in them and in the dwindling forest that surrounded them.

Visitors view the Betty Hemings Site.

Along the way, we discussed the dramatic shifts in settlement patterns and agricultural ecology that accompanied initial settlement of the mountain around 1740 by an overseer and slaves that belonged to Peter Jefferson. Initial episode was followed by Thomas Jefferson’s development of Monticello Plantation in the 1770’s, and the subsequent radical reorganization of the plantation that accompanied the transition from tobacco to wheat in the 1790’s.  At each stop on the walk, the group had a chance to consider the evidence from excavated artifacts and architectural remains, their implications for understanding  Jefferson’s attempts to cope with shifting Atlantic markets for his tobacco and  wheat crops, and the resulting changes in the life ways of Monticello’s enslaved laborers who grew them.

Figure 2. Workshop participants draw random samples of pottery types that were f

The workshop stressed not only our latest archaeological discoveries, but the field techniques we use to make them and the analytical methods that we use to decipher their historical meaning.  At each of the site we visited, participants drew samples of the kinds of ceramics that archaeologists had found there.  At the end of the walk, we pooled the all the samples from each site, and analyzed the results to reveal how the popularity of different pottery styles change over time, to date the occupations at the sites, and to trace shifts in the participation by slaves in the consumer economy.

Interested in participating in an Archaeology Workshop this year? There are three more in the series:

May 21. Understanding the Mountaintop Landscape.  Jefferson, his family, and scores of enslaved families made their homes at the summit of Monticello Mountain for nearly 60 years. This period witnessed remarkable changes in Jefferson’s neoclassical architectural masterpiece, the surrounding ornamental landscape, the houses and shops in which enslaved laborers lived and work, and the roads and paths that connected them. Monticello archaeologists offer an in- depth look at how these landscape elements worked, how and why they changed over time, and what we can learn from them about Jefferson, Monticello, and Virginia’s slave society. 

June 18. Archaeology and the Slave Societies of the British Atlantic: Monticello in comparative perspective. Jefferson’s Monticello was situated near the northern boundary of an archipelago of societies based on plantation slavery that stretched from Virginia south into the Carolinas and across the Caribbean to South America. This workshop explores how we can advance our understanding the historical processes that shaped the lives of Jefferson and his slaves by comparing archaeological evidence across early-modern slave societies. We focus on recent research lead by Monticello archaeologists on the sugar producing colonies of Jamaica and Nevis.

July 16. Learning how to Learn from the Archaeological Record. This summer Monticello archaeologists and students from the Monticello-University of Virginia Archaeological Field School have been investigating a site that was home to enslaved field workers in the early-nineteenth century.  This workshop explores our latest findings. Participants will work with archaeologists in hands-on examination and interpretation newly excavated artifacts and the computer-based analysis of temporal and spatial patterns that are key to unlocking their historical meaning.

Fraser D. Neiman

Hat Tip to Beth Sawyer for the title and for editorial assistance and to Jen Briggs for the photos!

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