A Day at Poplar Forest

Earlier this month I took a trip to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in Forest, Virginia with fellow VCU students Caitlyn, Crystal, Mariana, and Rachel.  Dr. Means was scanning some artifacts for the archaeology department there, and was kind enough to invite us to join him.  When Caitlyn, Crystal, and I arrived, he, Rachel, and Mariana were in the process of scanning a finial from the top of a clock that may have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  This was just one of many fascinating artifacts that Dr. Means had been working on during his visit there.  The rest were laid out on the table next to the scanner and included some stone pipes, a pipe with the words “Good Pipe” etched onto the side, a small metal WWI soldier, and a griffin-shaped tea spout.  Once we were all settled and the finial was scanning, Mr. Gary took us on a tour of the grounds, which was my favorite part of the day!

Poplar Forest was Thomas Jefferson’s private retreat, and features a fairly large octagonal house, which shares many architectural features with his home at Monticello.  What is very unique about this house and the land at Poplar Forest is that Jefferson designed it solely for himself, so studying this site gives archaeologists and researchers a unique perspective into the personal mind of Thomas Jefferson.  The way this home has been restored is also unique, as it is not set up like a traditional house museum.  Instead, the only furniture found is that which was recorded in the probate inventory, and one portion of the house has been left partially unfinished to display the complex layers of the home’s architecture.

After seeing the house, Mr. Gary showed us around outside, where we discussed the archaeology that has been taking place there and the restorations that have been made based on their excavations.  I was extremely impressed by the work that they have done at Poplar Forest, especially by the landscape archaeology that they have been doing recently.  Using a variety of archaeological methods and a fair amount of research they are able to determine where certain plants where located at the time that Jefferson lived there, and then use that information to restore the landscape.  I was also impressed by the amount of effort and thought that Jefferson put into the landscape in the first place, especially by the two mounds on either side of the house, which featured three different types of trees going down them to represent a natural rotunda.

We were also taken to a particularly fascinating excavation site away from the house that has been open for over a decade and has yielded thousands of incredible artifacts and even some features.  They have gathered so much information from this one small corner of the grounds that they now have to close the site until they can process it all.  I was very impressed by this excavation, and I am very excited to learn about what they determine from their findings!

After the tour of the grounds, we headed back to the lab to check on the scanner.  Everything was going well, and before long our day at Poplar Forest was done.  Before we left, we stopped at the small museum that is located in the lower floor of the house.  I was extremely impressed to find a great deal of information about the archaeology that has been done there.  Most museums focus on what has been found at a site and who has been there, but usually do not concentrate on who recovered the information and how.  It was really nice to visit a place with such a unique focus and perspective, and I highly recommend visiting if you are ever in the area!  I had a fantastic time during our visit, and I want to thank Jack Gary and all of the archaeologists in the lab for being so welcoming!

If you’d like to learn more about Poplar Forest, please visit their website at poplarforest.org, and check out their blog at poplarforestarchaeology.wordpress.com!

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One Last Scrape

Laura and James clean up the units that we were scraping on Thursday.

Earlier this week I found out that the folks at Ferry Farm were still in the process of wrapping up the site for the season and could use some help.  I eagerly volunteered and headed up bright and early on Thursday morning for one more day in the field!  When I arrived, James explained that they needed to give the whole northern half of the excavation area a fresh scrape so that they could photograph it and officially close it up.  Each person was given a row of units to complete, so I quickly grabbed my trowel, bucket, and dustpan and got to work on mine.  I carefully scraped off the dark, hardened layer of soil at the top of my units to reveal the soft red earth underneath, and kept an eye out for any soil discolorations or artifacts in the process.

Pipe stem with crown design.

I had to work around a couple of utility trenches and the shell midden that I helped excavate last week, but I did not have any major problems and managed to get through my row of units very quickly.  I didn’t find many artifacts in the soil I gathered, but there were a few small bits of ceramic, a nail, and some shell.  The only really interesting find of the day was a pipe stem with a lovely crown design engraved on it, which was discovered by Amanda, one of the interns.

The whole northern half of our excavation from above.

After everyone was finished scraping and everything was cleaned up, I helped James set up a ladder at the south end of the region so that Laura could climb up and take a photograph from above.  Once we had it set up, he climbed to the top to make sure that the positioning was right, and when he looked down he saw some soil stains that indicate a feature of some kind in the northwest corner.  He asked if I would like to go up next and take some pictures, which I very excitedly did!  It was incredible to see our entire excavation from above, and I was even able to spot the stains that James had seen.  Shortly after I took my pictures, Laura came to take the final photograph and we were officially done with that part of the excavation.

Once the scraping and photographing was done, Laura asked me if I could help Katie and Anna scrape and map the last three units in this year’s excavation.  I was happy to help, and Katie and I got straight to work scraping the first of the units.  This one was far more difficult to get through than the ones we had done earlier, as the soil was very hard, dried out clay that did not come up well with our trowels.  After struggling with it for a while, we finally wet the ground a bit to soften the soil, which made it a little easier to work with and allowed us to finish scraping.

The map of this year’s excavation at Ferry Farm.

Next, we needed to take measurements and draw the unit on the map that they had been working on for over a week.  They unrolled it to show me what they had done so far, and I was absolutely amazed.  Every rock, root, and soil anomaly from nearly every unit we excavated this summer was there, and I was extremely impressed.  Katie asked me if I would rather draw our unit or take the measurements from it, and I elected to draw.  Anna helped me get set up and guided me through the process, as Katie laid out the rulers and began giving me measurements.  The numbers she gave me represented the exact location of the rocks in our unit, which I had to then copy onto the map.  It didn’t take long, but by the time we were finished the day was over.

Our first unit, and the last to be finished.

I took a few pictures of the site and looked at the last two units that were going to be scraped and mapped on Friday in order to completely close the site, and I realized that the last unit that would be done was the first unit that Victoria, Jason, Allison, and I opened on our first day of field school.  I found a strange sense of closure in that, and after taking one more picture, I packed up my things and headed home.

Thursday was a spectacular day in the field, and I’m so glad that I got to dig one more time before the end of the excavation!  I am going to miss everyone there, and I’ll certainly miss the work, but I’m sure I won’t be staying away from Ferry Farm for very long, and I can’t wait until next time!