Excavation May Add to Monroe Hill’s Historic Record

June 7, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Archaeologists recently uncovered what may be the foundation of a summer kitchen at Monroe Hill House, the oldest extant building on the University of Virginia Grounds.

The find, the historic value of which will take months to analyze, intrigued the archaeologists.

“There’s a tiny, complete glass bottle,” Susan Palazzo of Rivanna Archaeological Services, said. “I don’t know what it would have held, but it’s the cutest bottle I’ve ever seen, and what looks like a gear from a clock. I also found what looks like a piece of green oval glass that was maybe set into a ring. And there were several pieces of small pharmaceutical bottles, a couple of glass pipettes, which we would think of as lab ware. I suppose they could have a kitchen use, for use with extracts or something.”

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But most of the focus was on the foundation of the kitchen.

“We know from doing research at Monroe Hill that there were kitchens here from before the University existed,” archaeologist Benjamin Ford, principal of Rivanna Archaeological Services, said. “Monroe Hill was constructed by James Monroe as a residence and law office in the late 1700s.”

John Perry, a contractor who helped build the University, acquired Monroe Hill in 1814. He sold the property to the University shortly thereafter.

Ford thinks the foundation, fashioned from handmade bricks, dates from the 1840s and was built to replace an earlier kitchen.

View of the archeological dig
Archaeologist Susan Palazzo of Rivanna Archaeological Services vacuums some soil out of excavation at Monroe Hill. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“We do not know whether the earlier kitchen would have been on the same spot,” Ford said. “There may have been as many as three kitchens at Monroe Hill dating back to the James Monroe era, but their location, unfortunately, is not known. And those earlier ones would have been frame or log construction. But the foundations that we have recovered here are solid brick foundations and we think that this is the 1840s kitchen, which we have evidence was built during that period.”

The kitchen can be seen in an early 20th-century photograph of Monroe Hill taken from across Emmet Street. This image gives archaeologists a sense of the size and dimensions of the structure. There are also maps of the area that indicate an outbuilding on the site. 

“We have found definitively two sides of the long kitchen structure, in terms of the brick foundations,” Ford said. “We know where that structure was. While we have not yet identified the gable-end walls to the structure, we hope to figure that out through historic map projection. We know that this structure was about 16 feet in width, and we have found both sidewalls to the structure.”

Ford said that in addition to the foundation walls, archaeologists found the remains of a dry-laid brick path on the south side of the structure, as well as the remains of early drains.

An artifact discovered in the dig
Archaeologist Susan Palazzo of Rivanna Archaeological Services holds a small glass bottle unearthed at the Monroe Hill site. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“We’ve found what we call ‘brick-box drains,’ the early sanitary system for the University that was constructed from the 1820s on up through the 1880s,” Ford said. “They were literally drains formed of brick, laid brick sides, bottom and top. Some of the brick drains had parging [a thin coat of mortar to seal the surface] on the inside to help the water and waste flow through. We found two brick-box drains in one of the units as well.”

The archeological dig was a precursor to a project to extend a modern, energy-saving system into Monroe Hill House. The “low-temperature hot water project,” part of the University’s plan to eventually be carbon-neutral and free of fossil fuels, will replace existing steam heat distribution.

The archeology team dug five rectangular holes near where earlier maps indicated an outbuilding between the house and Brown Residential College.

Ford’s team found few artifacts because much of what they were excavating was fill soil, possibly to level the landscaping of the site after Brown College was constructed.

More artifacts discovered in the dig
Archaeologists uncovered part of an old commercial bottle at the Monroe Hill excavations. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Brown was built in the 1920s. And we know that the stone retaining wall that holds the soils in between Monroe Hill and Brown College was also built at that time,” Ford said. “And it’s entirely possible that the landscaping that we see here, with the construction of Brown College in the 1920s – the demolition of the kitchen, the building of the Monroe Hill garage – all happens within a matter of a few years. I think there would have been soil added here, perhaps to make this a more level terrace in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Rivanna Archaeology completed its excavations on Monroe Hill before Finals Weekend, but will continue to monitor the utility excavation in case something else turns up. Ford does not expect a lot since the workers are restricted to the already-disturbed utility corridor.

Ford said it could take several months of researching historical records and examining artifacts before a final report on the dig is ready.

Workers actively measuring the dig
Archaeologists Craig Kelley, lower right, and Abe Crane, upper left, of Rivanna Archaeological Services, measure an excavation. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications