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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