Skip to main content

The Jefferson Dig

July 2024
1min read

“I first dug superficially … and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth. Bones of the most distant parts were found together, as, for instance, the small bones of the foot in the hollow of a scull. …”

This grisly scene was recalled by Thomas Jefferson in 1781 in his classic Notes on the State of Virginia and describes his excavation of an ancient Indian burial mound near his home at Monticello. It also validates his place in history—among all the other things for which he is remembered—as a founder of modern archaeology.

It is noteworthy to report, then, that having once dug, Jefferson himself is now being dug. More precisely, his estate at Monticello is being dug in an effort to discover those sherds and splinters of the past that can illuminate the kind and quality of life at Monticello during Jefferson’s years there. The work is being done under the aegis of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which purchased the estate from Jefferson Monroe Levy in 1923 (see “The Levys of Monticello” by Mary Cable and Annabelle Prager in our February/March 1978 issue). Foundation spokesman Matthew V. Gaffney tells us about it:

“Under the direction of William M. Kelso, Monticello’s resident archaeologist, work has centered around the vegetable garden and adjoining Mulberry Row, Monticello’s ‘industrial center.’ It was here that Jefferson established shops for nailmaking, blacksmithing, weaving and joinery work. In all, a total of 19 buildings stood along Mulberry Row during its most flourishing period from 1796 to 1804.

“Colonial and early United States coins, porcelain and the tools and products of early Monticello crafts have been among the items unearthed since the excavations began in June, 1979.

“Below the garden wall, the orchard and vineyard areas envisioned by Jefferson will be re-created. According to Kelso, ‘Soil stains from rotted tree roots coincide with Jefferson’s orchard plans regarding individual tree locations. This will make it possible for trees, including apple, pear, quince, and nectarine, to be planted in the original grid configuration.’ Archaeological work throughout the garden area will make it possible for Jefferson’s original paling fence to be reconstructed. An essential feature of an early nineteenth-century garden, the fence was ordered by Jefferson to be built with pales ‘so near as not to let even a young hare in.’ Soil stains from the rotted fence posts have indicated the course of the fence line, and variances in the intervals between posts have pinpointed the original gate locations.

“Archaeological work will continue to provide insights into Thomas Jefferson and Monticello over the course of the next two years. The project is being funded by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.