Poplar Forest Archaeology

"I have this summer built a wing of offices 110 feet long…"


Artifacts from the Carriage Turnaround: the 20th century

Over the last 3 years, archaeologists at Poplar Forest have excavated the Carriage Turnaround to understand what it might have looked like during Jefferson’s era and what changes the later owners made. We’ve finished cataloging the Carriage Turnaround artifacts and I’d like to highlight several of the interesting items we’ve seen from various periods of occupation at Poplar Forest. Overall, the Carriage Turnaround held less material than our other recent projects like the Wing and the Clumps of Trees and Oval Planting Beds (COB). This is the first of three posts, which will work backwards from the mid-20th century to Jefferson’s time. Today I’m going to show two objects from the Carriage Turnaround that I think might have special interest for those who grew up in the 20th century.

Poplar Forest was owned through the early 20th century by Christian S. Hutter until 1946, when he sold it to Lynchburg lawyer James Watts and his wife Sarah. The couple found it a privilege to live at Poplar Forest with their three children, James III (Jimmy), Key, and Stephen. The Watts not only lived at Poplar Forest but also used it as a dairy farm, which it remained for the next 3 decades. According to oral interviews, they used the Northeast area of the turnaround as parking for their automobiles (Chambers 1989). As we excavated, we found artifacts from the Watts era in the ground.

Poplar Forest circa 1943 showing the turnaround entrance

Poplar Forest ca. 1943 [Poplar Forest 1989.012P]
Image taken by C.S. Hutter of the Turnaround, just a few years before the Watts arrive.
The Turnaround looks much like this until 2012 when the boxwoods were removed.

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Field School Week 6

By Ashley Stoots and staff contributions

It is an anecdotally well-established rule among archaeologists that the final days of an excavation offer the most tantalizing discoveries, and this week proved no exception.  We expanded our understanding of the carriage turnaround in two particularly intriguing areas. This was the final week of field school.  We focused on finishing up the last minute things on our agenda that need to be done.  One section of our excavation was filled back with dirt on Monday, but not before lining our units with fill cloth so future archaeologists have a better idea of where we stopped.

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Work on two units in front of the house continued throughout the week.  Cobbles were found there but were much bigger than cobbles that were previously found elsewhere in the carriage turnaround.  They were also crafted from a different type of rock.  Whereas most of the stones revealed so far in the carriage turnaround are quartz, this section of cobbles directly in front of the house consists almost exclusively of schist.  Many visitors this summer have commented on what a jolting experience it must have been to ride over the uneven quartz surface, even if it was packed with sand and gravel.  One look at this newly uncovered schist surface and the contrast is clear.  If this was intentional, why would Thomas Jefferson have had his laborers put these large flat stones in this particular location directly in front of the house?  One possible interpretation is that this area may have functioned as a “parking spot” or disembarking point for people arriving at the retreat house. Though the uneven cobbles throughout the turnaround may have been better for the horses’ feet, perhaps a concession for human comfort was made here!

schist layer

Despite the clock running down on our field school, we were eager to further investigate the carriage turnaround, so a new unit was also opened up.  Cobblestones were also discovered in this unit.  The cobbles in this unit showed evidence of the circular shape at the center of the carriage turnaround., helping us to further define the size and shape of this feature of Poplar Forest’s ornamental landscape.

The other exciting finds were farther away from the house, along the inside edge of the turnaround.  In addition to what we’ve come to consider the usual gravel and quartz cobbles, five bricks were also found at the center edge of the carriage turnaround. Some of the bricks were actually column bricks which was really interesting.  These are a special type of brick with a rounded edge manufactured at Poplar Forest for the columns on the retreat house’s front and back porticos, or porches; rather than purchase expensive marble like that used in the buildings of classical antiquity that so inspired him, Jefferson utilized the abundant local red clay in his architectural designs.  From documentary sources we know that Jefferson’s laborers only performed one firing of column bricks, in 1807.  The bricks we uncovered this week do not have any mortar or other building materials on them, so they are most likely left over from the original construction of the house, allowing us to confidently date this layer as contemporaneous with Thomas Jefferson’s time at Poplar Forest.  It is also interesting to note that of the five bricks we found, the two that are definitely column bricks are actually aligned with the center of the house and are placed in opposite directions, forming a sort of “S” curve.  This is an exciting conclusion to our six weeks of excavation, and our future research will certainly explore why these bricks were placed in this particular spot and oriented in such a way.

bricks in sitiu

In our readings and discussions this week, we took time to reflect on the stories of labor and enslaved people at Poplar Forest.  We also discussed issues of interpretation at public history sites such as this one, and learned about building a resume and finding career opportunities within the fields of archaeology, historic preservation, and museum work.  Overall I think that this field school was a wonderful experience for everyone.  We all worked hard, had fun while doing it and all became good friends.


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Field School Week 5

By Danielle Browley

So many great and interesting things are happening at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. We’ve been finding so many things artifact and feature wise in the field. The uncovering of the original carriage turnaround is coming along smoothly and we’re excited about what’s been found.

Monday: The cleaning and excavating of the “C” layer of the units continued out at the carriage turnaround. Many more cobblestones were appearing in the units that we had been excavating. Along with finding more cobblestones, we found more artifacts, including short cut nails and pieces of iron wire. Two new units were also marked off and opened by the front of the house.

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Tuesday: Excavation of the units continued and more artifacts were discovered. These artifacts included more nails, possible bone fragments of animals, and more pieces of iron. Another interesting discovery were random pieces of brick that continued to appear within the four connected units that we were excavating. From that discovery rose the question of whether those bricks were simply rejected from the construction of the house and added to the turnaround, or if the bricks had been placed in the turnaround for decorative purposes.

Wednesday: The process of excavation continued and we took group photographs of our units. The topsoil layer was removed from the units in front of the house. Several artifacts were found in those units, however most were determined to be backfill from previous excavations that included materials used in the restoration process of the Poplar Forest retreat house.

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Thursday: Today was spent in the archaeology lab with the laboratory supervisor Jenn Ogborne. We practiced labeling artifacts as well as cataloguing with the archiving program on the computers. We also used Surfer, a computer program that allows you to map and show trends of artifacts. We also learned about the GIS program that allows you to map sites and import pictures that you’ve taken of an area.

Friday: HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! Today was a fun-filled day of activities at Poplar Forest. Many different venues had stations at Poplar Forest. These venues included historic re-enactments of British and American army recruiters for the revolutionary war, 18th century toys and games, tons of food, pony rides, a live potter, and even a blacksmith. The archaeology department at Poplar Forest had a station that allowed people to try their hand at the process of cross-mending. The field school was a “live exhibit” for the day as many people approached us curious about what we were digging up and its significance to the plantation itself. This was truly a week that had the perfect combination of hard work and fun. Only one more week of field school is left.

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Field School Week 4

By: Ryan Hodges

Field Work:

As we continue to uncover more of the carriage turnaround we are revealing much more of the area where we may potentially be able to see the curvature of the circle. We have opened up a great grouping of four units in the central part of the turnaround, toward the northern area of the center. As a group effort these units are being unearthed all at once. We have found many nails, fence staples, and some ceramics. We also came across a coin dated to 1895, which was in keeping with the layer that we were excavating at that time. More cobble stones continue to appear in these units as well, helping us to further understand what the turnaround looked like. As we continue to excavate, we begin to piece together this very large puzzle to see the dimensions of the turnaround.

FS W4 excavation

Thursday proved a really productive and exciting day in the field. Interestingly, there are many bricks in the new set of units in the center of the carriage turnaround. Some of them are irregularly shaped, and more excavation is needed to understand what the bricks can tell us about the turnaround. The progressing layers in these units have yeilded some porcelain and what appear to be flow blue sherds. We have also found a piece of a parasol rib! The artifacts coming out of these 4 units are continuing to match the right time period of the layers as we excavate deeper. All of these findings are quite exciting and a bit puzzling at the same time! We intend to determine how these bricks and artifacts tie into the structure of the turnaround.

Lab Work:

This week in the lab we have been labeling artifacts and practicing our crossmending skills, along with learning how to calculate a mean ceramic date and interpret Harris matrices. Labeling the artifacts is a task that requires a steady hand in order to mark each individual piece to know which unit and layer it came from. Crossmending is where the sherds that are found from excavation are put back together to form their original vessel. While many pieces are often missing, what we are able to put together can show a more holistic view of what the vessel may have looked like. It is like doing a really difficult puzzle with many pieces, and you don’t have the top of the box to see what it all looks like! The mean ceramic date (MCD) helps archaeologists calculate a mean date for ceramics of a historic assemblage, and the Harris matrix is a form of organization of the stratification of the layers of soil. Both are very important to interpreting an archaeological site.

FS W4 lab

Historic Sandusky Visit

This week we also had the pleasure of being able to visit Historic Sandusky plantation in Lynchburg. The property has a lot of history that is in line with that of Poplar Forest, including the property being owned by the Hutter family. We were able to take a look at what they are working on, particularly their endeavors to find an enslaved laborer kitchen. We had a fantastic tour of the house, and got to catch up with what their field school is currently working on. A big thanks to Lori Lee, the Sandusky staff and the Sandusky field school for a great visit!

Be sure to check back for further blog posts, as our field school only has two more weeks!

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Field School Week 3

By Emily Patton Smith

Week 3 has seen an end to our relatively agreeable weather, as both heat and humidity—and an occasional afternoon thunderstorm—become more commonplace. However, our efforts are beginning to pay off as Jefferson’s carriage turnaround slowly materializes under our trowels. The exterior perimeter of the turnaround is now more clearly visible (though much less round than we anticipated), and a recently opened unit is beginning to reveal the interior arc as well.

week 3 excavation

The cobbled surface is incredibly rough and uneven, partly owing to the irregularity of the cobbled pavers, and partly the result of many years of rutting as well as the action of roots above and below the surface, corrupting the integrity of the paving materials. In some units, hard-packed sand and quartz gravel attest to past attempts to render the surface more even and passable. One visitor, who works with horses, suggested that the horses might prefer the rough cobbled surface even if the carriage passengers did not; the traction afforded by the quartz cobbles might seem more secure to the animals than the slippery packed gravel.

W# Tray of Clean Artifacts

We have also taken turns in the laboratory, washing the artifacts which have surfaced so far in our excavations. Most of the finds are architectural debris from the 1845 fire, such as brick rubble, charred wood, and fragments of broken window glass. A sherd of flow blue ceramic dated one layer to the Hutter era occupation.

On Thursday and Friday, we participated in a time-honored tradition of summer learning: a field trip! We went on the road to observe the work of several other field schools at various sites in northern Virginia: Ferry Farm in Stafford County (VCU Field School); Stratford Hall (University of Mary Washington Field School); and on Friday, Mount Vernon (University of Maryland Field School). At Ferry Farm, director Dave Muraca gave us an energetic overview of the site as well as their enviable conservation laboratory, and some of his favorite artifacts. At Stratford Hall, Dr. Douglas Sanford introduced us to the students who are excavating a kitchen, quarters, and possibly a smokehouse on the edge of the carriage entrance. And at Mount Vernon, Karen Price, the archaeology lab manager, gave us a tour of their laboratory facilities and an overview of their projects before introducing us to Joe Downer, a graduate student who is overseeing the location of grave sites in the slave cemetery.

W3 field trip 1

One thing which was striking to us was the scale of the projects undertaken at the first two sites. Although we now have multiple units open, we have only a matter of a few inches to dig before reaching the Jefferson-era surface. The field schools at Ferry Farm and Stratford Hall are examining sites which have undergone more drastic changes in the centuries since their initial development, including the construction and destruction of one or multiple structures, and agricultural practices such as heavy plowing. As a result, their excavations extend through many more layers of deposition, with some features cutting several feet into the ground. In contrast, the Mount Vernon field school is mapping the locations of grave sites within the slave cemetery. This ground, on a wooded promontory overlooking the wharf, has seen less disturbance over the years and the soil stains marking the burial locations is easily visible at a relatively shallow depth.

Both Ferry Farm and Mount Vernon are utilizing 3-D printing techniques for modelling artifacts and features. At Ferry Farm, Dr. Bernard Means demonstrated the technique of scanning features for 3-D modeling, and we examined samples of artifacts reproduced in plastic through 3-D printing. This technique has much potential in that a “field reference collection” can be maintained without exposing original artifacts, and visitors (especially children) can handle the reproduced artifacts. Plastic scale models of features can be used to document the site even after the excavations have been backfilled. The Mount Vernon lab also utilizes the printed reproductions in museum displays.

W3 Touristy pic at Mt Vernon

This account just “scratches the surface” with respect to what we have learned and experienced this week. Many thanks to the individuals and sites which gave generously of their time and insight to enhance our perspectives of historical archaeology beyond the carriage turnaround at Poplar Forest. After such a busy week, we were eager to spend Thursday evening by relaxing in the motel pool, playing card games, and celebrating over plates of Mexican food at Carlos O’Kelly’s!

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Field School Week 2

by Samantha Fagone

fs week 2 a

Week 2 of the Archaeology and Field school was full of new material as well as excitement for the upcoming field trip to Monticello that was to take place on Tuesday.  On Monday, we began to learn more about the different ceramics and glassware that were common at Poplar Forest through not only Jefferson’s time, but from when other families resided on the property as well. With the new information we had received in the lab, the team headed out to continue working on the Carriage Turnaround. Each unit has made significant progress since last week, and you can clearly see where the edge of the cobblestone road was! As we packed up for the day, it was clear everyone was proud of the hard work they’d done and were excited to continue the next time we’d be back in the field.

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On Tuesday we visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s primary residence, and luckily for us it was a gorgeous day.

We took the tour of the house first and we even given a private tour upstairs! It was amazing to see the similarities in the architecture at Monticello compared to Poplar Forest. Jack Gary, our Director, then took us to meet their archaeologists and field school. The techniques and overall process they use mirrored ours, so it was easy to understand what the students were doing. We then went on a tour of the wooded area right outside the home where we went to different sites that at one point different buildings stood. The day was filled with fun and we were all excited to get back to Poplar Forest by the time we went home.

fs week 2 composite

On Wednesday we cleaned up the cobblestones as well as used the float tank to catch smaller artifacts that could’ve fallen through during the first screening out in the field. We also continued our lecture about glassware by Jenn Ogborne; leaning about bottles shapes, colors, uses, etc. By expanding our knowledge of these artifacts, it aids us in being to identify smaller fragments of them in the field.

Although the weather has been on and off rain this week, the team keeps pushing through. All in all so far it’s been a great week and I can’t wait to see what else we learn at the field school.


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2014 Field School Week 1

By: Keisha Stoots

On a sunny June morning, the 2014 Archaeology Field School students began our six week course at Poplar Forest. During this initial week, we focused on locating the area where the carriage turn around in front of the main house met the straight road that led to the larger, circular road surrounding the house for the purpose of a future restoration of the road. Monday afternoon, the students began their excavation of the carriage turnaround in front of the house with Eric Proebsting.

FS Week 1 A

Cobblestones from the Jefferson-era road were found on this first day and on Tuesday, it was discovered that the angle continued southward through another unit. Some small artifacts were found among these cobbles, such as a piece of whiteware and a green piece of glass, possibly from a wine bottle. Also on Tuesday, the students learned to map their units and take elevation measurements on a total station with Jack Gary and summer intern Eve.

FS Week1 D

On Wednesday, three new units were opened up. Two of these continue to focus on unearthing more of the carriage turnaround while the third was opened up in the grassy area at the center of the turnaround. In both these units, the cobblestones were found not long after the topsoil had been removed. This third new unit will hopefully unearth information regarding what was planted in this center area as past excavations discovered that the English boxwoods that had occupied the space for many years were not actually from the Jefferson era. As the course goes on, excavations will eventually be started on the turnaround directly in front of the steps of the house in order to discover more about the cobbles there, which differ from the stones that make up the rest of the turnaround.

FS Week 1 B


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