Summer Archaeology Class at Monticello Brings Students Face to Face with History

Woman kneeling on the ground excavating for archeological finds

On a recent, unseasonably cool day in Charlottesville, a group of students huddled over square, shallow dig sites on the floor of a section of sun-dappled forest at Monticello, searching for clues to previous lives.

Under the tutelage of Fraser Neiman, Monticello’s director of archaeology, 11 students are spending six weeks in the University of Virginia’s Summer Archaeological Field School at Thomas Jefferson’s home.

Neiman said two-thousand acres of Monticello provide “our archaeological sand box.”

“Our ongoing research initiative is to survey all of that property,” he said, speaking in Monticello’s archaeology lab, which is filled with artifacts recovered during years of investigation.

The work involves digging shovel test pits every 40 feet. To date, more than 20,000 dot the property, helping to reveal how land use changed during Jefferson’s day.

“The big fulcrum in our work is the 1790s, when Jefferson and planters across the Chesapeake transitioned from tobacco to wheat as the major staple crop,” Neiman said. “That has all kinds of ecological consequences, but also seems to affect the way enslaved people lived on a day-to-day basis. That is a major focus of our research here at Monticello.”

Recently, the students in the course excavated material from sites at both Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland. Take a look at how it works and what they found.

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Jane Kelly

Office of University Communications