Archeology Under Way at U.Va.'s Morven Farm

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June 16, 2009 — For seven University of Virginia archeology students, their classroom this week is a sometimes-muddy field at U.Va.'s Morven Farm. There, they are taking the first steps to unearth 12,000 years of human history, including two little-studied aspects of that history – the story of American Indians following contact with European settlers, and the life of "middling class" tenant farmers in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The students enrolled in "Field Methods in Archaeology" are surveying a 200-acre section of Morven by digging a grid of small test pits at 40-foot intervals. The grid is laid out using computerized surveying equipment, in relation to a "ground zero" point established daily via satellite GPS. The pits are about two feet square, extending down to the undisturbed clay subsoil.

The survey is supervised by doctoral student Elizabeth Bollwerk, along with archeology professor Jeffrey Hantman and Derek Wheeler, a research archaeologist from Monticello.

The research team chose to survey this particular 200-acre swath based on a circa 1796 map of Morven commissioned by Thomas Jefferson that shows an "Indian camp branch" and various fields rented by tenant farmers. Penciled notes on the map – that look to be Jefferson's own writing, according to Wheeler – record the crops growing in particular fields in 1799 and 1800, including corn, wheat and hemp.

Working eight-hour days, the students record any artifacts found, along with soil quality, depth and layers. They also note places on the survey grid where a detector finds metal. All the data will be digitized and used to create maps that can reveal patterns and possible "hot spots" for further investigation and excavation.

For archeology students, fieldwork like this is "the only way to really learn," Hantman said. Completing an archeology field training is like earning a "union card," a credential that will enable the students to join a dig anywhere in the world.

"It's cool to be at the start of a project that could have a lot of potential," said student Chance Hamro, who will join a dig in Rome after finishing the class.

As artifacts are found at Morven, U.Va. students will compare them with artifacts in the well-documented Flowerdew Hundred Collection, now housed at Morven and in the Harrison/Small Special Collections Library at U.Va. The collection was given to U.Va. in 2008 by the late Mary and David Harrison III, former owners of the Flowerdew Hundred farm on the south side of Virginia's James River, between Hopewell and Jamestown.

Approximately 200,000 artifacts were unearthed during 30 years of excavations on the farm, the site of a succession of American Indian, English and African-American settlements. Items in the collection include 10,000-year-old stone tools, and rare European and American-made household items from the late 16th century through the early 20th century.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity to link the archeology of the Piedmont to the lower James," Hantman said.

After the class ends this Friday, much of the survey work will remain. With funding from the President's Office, Rivanna Archeology Services (a local firm led by two U.Va. archeology alumni) will add roughly 2,000 test pits to the 200 or so already dug by the students, several of whom plan to continue working on the Morven survey as employees of RAS for the rest of the summer.

A map of the first Albemarle County land patents in 1730 denotes an "Indian camp" in the area of Morven. Such description was "highly unusual," because "the first settlers never talked about Indians," Hantman explained, even though we now know from archeological evidence that Monacan Indians lived in the area before and after the first settlements by English colonists.

Post-contact Indian history has never been told, Hantman said, because the usual settler narrative asserts that the Indians were simply gone when post-Jamestown settlers arrived. Many moved west, Hantman explained, but some were still around. "That contact between Indians and colonists needs to be better understood. We have a chance to do that here."

The Monacans didn't build houses or towns that would leave conspicuous archeological remains, Hantman said, but a broad survey of test pits can reveal a pattern of intensive use over time.

Indeed, the test pits at Morven have already produced a number of Indian pottery shards and hand-worked quartz flakes that were a byproduct of making arrow and spear points.

"There's almost certainly a full 12,000 years of Indian history here," Hantman said, "... because of the location and based on what we know from prior research in Albemarle County."

Some of that research was done by Jefferson himself. Archeology was among Jefferson's many scientific interests. In "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson reports on an Indian burial mound just a few miles north of Charlottesville, on the banks of the South Fork of the Rivanna River. Using remarkably sophisticated techniques for the time, Hantman said, Jefferson excavated a trench through the middle of the mound, taking detailed notes on the layers of soil and the positions and types of the many human bones that were found. Based on the contents of the trench, Jefferson extrapolated that the entire mound contained the remains of approximately 1,000 people.

A very similar mound in Orange County was studied in recent years and thought to contain about 2,000 skeletons, Hantman noted, so Jefferson's estimate was reasonable, and probably even a bit conservative. "His methods were remarkable," Hantman said.

Since Jefferson's time, much has been learned about both the Monacans and earlier peoples of North America. Starting around 9,500 B.C., a particular type of spear point, known as a Clovis point, began appearing all over North America. Though quite rare, Hantman said, the points have been found from Alaska to Florida to New Mexico to Maine to Virginia, occasionally amidst mastodon bones.

The Clovis culture was migratory, but in a very sophisticated way, Hantman said, balancing the collection of berries, fruits and seasonally available plants with the hunting of herd animals. Finds at Morven may help fill in the picture of these people.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and in 1796 Thomas Jefferson purchased the land encompassing today's Morven Farm on behalf of his "adoptive son," Colonel William Short, who had served as private secretary to Jefferson during his term as U.S. Minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Short went on to serve as U.S. Minister to Holland and to Spain in the 1790s, becoming America's first career diplomat.

Short's duties kept him in Europe until 1802, so Jefferson managed the property for him, renting small plots to a number of tenant farmers. This "middling class" of farmers comprised a large portion of the population of Albemarle County, but have been much less studied than the lives and plantations of Virginia's elite or even the slaves and other workers who made up the whole of plantation communities.

One of Hantman's former doctoral students, Alison Bell, now a professor of anthropology at Washington & Lee University, did her thesis on the "middling class" in Louisa County, and continues to specialize in the study of Virginia's non-elites. She will lead the analysis of the tenant farmer period at Morven. Her summer field class participated in the site survey for three days in May.

Even when test pits don't produce any artifacts, Hantman noted, they provide valuable information about humans' long-term impact on the environment, known as human ecology.

For instance, clear-cutting a forested area to make a field creates a whole new pattern of sedimentation in the area. Plowing a hillside field over decades and centuries can gradually transport the topsoil down the hill, leaving less topsoil higher on the hillside – an effect that's already been observed in the early test pits, said Hantman. The test pits are also revealing a well-defined charcoal layer, a sign of burning to clear the land. "The dirt is a matrix of information," Hantman noted.

He plans to work with environmental sciences professors Pat Wiberg and Hank Shugart to examine the sedimentation patterns and forest succession at Morven.

Morven offers "a chance to understand the long-term construction of the human landscape," Hantman said. "It didn't always look like this. How did it become this? What are the effects of different types of agriculture on the landscape? What are the effects of clearing the forest on the landscape?" Better understanding humans' past impact can provide guidance for long-term sustainability in the future.

— By Brevy Cannon