Poplar Forest Archaeology

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

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Servant Bells at Poplar Forest

Servant bells, also called house bells, are systems of wire and pulleys that run throughout a building and allow a resident to call for a servant from the far reaches of the building without leaving the room they are in. The earliest record of mounted house bells was in a 1727 inventory of the Great House at Kiveton, seat of the Marquess of Carmarthen (Murdoch 2006).

The eighteenth century marked major cultural changes in aristocratic English household arrangement. The home became a familial sanctuary to which guests were permitted intermittently and in which servants were expected to be invisible (Tuan 1982). With the flood of consumer products into the marketplace in the late 1700s, luxury and consumerism became a visible marker of nobility and success. As a veneer of expensive cultured elegance became inextricably linked to one’s social status, the separation between the servant and master classes within the household became of mounting importance (Crowley 2003).

Prior to mounted bells, masters summoned servants by the ringing of a small hand bell or through vocal summons (Murtha 2010). However, these methods required servants to wait within hearing distance at all times; they could not engage in other chores or activities and still be accessible. House bells provided a more genteel way to request help from servants while simultaneously allowing the servants greater locational flexibility. Instead of coarsely yelling across the halls of his house, an employer could quietly pull a cord to summon his employees, projecting an image of ease and leisure (Crowley 2003).

Company Shocked at a Lady Getting Up to Ring the Bell

Figure 1: Company Shocked at a Lady getting up to Ring the Bell, James Gillray, 1805.

In the early 1800s, the United States was a young nation with a rising class based on ability and success instead of lineage. The upper echelon of American society was composed of the landed planters and successful businessmen who cemented themselves as elite members of society by emulating their European counterparts. Gentility, refinement, and polite behavior became the way to identify the truly refined members of society (see Figure 1) (Bushman 1992).

Robert Roberts, a black freeman and author of The House Servant’s Directory (1828), outlined servant duties and expectations for how slaves and servants were expected to behave in fine Antebellum households. Under the heading of “Remarks on Answering the Bells”, Roberts wrote: “…lose no time in going to answer it; never wait to finish what you are about, and leave the bell unanswered ; you never should let the bell ring twice if you possibly can avoid it, for it seems to be a great part of negligence in a servant”.

While many plantation homes in the Antebellum South followed their northern and urban neighbors’ example and installed house bells, many slaveowners simply did not see the need to do so. Bell systems in the North were intended to disconnect and depersonalize the relationship between mistress and servant, but racial stigmatization in the nineteenth century had already made the distinction between black and white absolute. Slaves within the home were implicitly understood as inferior by virtue of their race (Weiner 1998). Wealthy slave owners often had several slaves dedicated to serving the white family and more than one observer described such personal enslaved servants as the master’s ‘shadow’. Henry Cogswell Knight travelled extensively throughout Virginia in the 1810s and noted that “Where ever the Virginians go, a slave or two moves behind as their shadow to hold the horses, pull off their boots and pantaloons at bedtime, and, if cold to blow up the fire in their bedrooms with their mouths” (Knight 1824). English visitor Fanny Trollope felt some astonishment at slaveholders’ indifference to the constant presence of their attendants. In her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), she wrote “It seemed to me in this instance as in many others that the close personal attendance of these sable shadows must be very annoying, but whenever I mentioned it I was assured that no such feeling existed and that use rendered them almost unconscious of their presence.” In such homes, bell systems were reserved for the front door or when company was present (Murtha 2010).

Components of a System

Figure 2: Components of a Servant Bell System, Tom H. Gerhardt, Old-House Journal, October 1979.

Despite the predominate ambivalence towards enslaved servants, some American Southerners regarded a slave’s constant presence as more of a detriment than benefit. Thomas Jefferson kept several domestic slaves to run his houses at Monticello and Poplar Forest, but seemed to have an aversion to keeping a body servant solely for his personal needs (Stanton 2012). His grandson-in-law recalled that “It was incompatible with the sentiment of Manhood, as it existed in him, that one human being should be followed about by another as his shadow” (Trist to Henry S. Randall, n.d.. Stanton 2012). In the years after 1809, the slave Burwell Colbert acted as Jefferson’s personal servant, though probably not as a valet as understood at the time. Burwell was the butler of Monticello, responsible for keeping the keys, supervising the rest of the enslaved house servants, and acting as chief waiter at meals, as well as serving Jefferson himself both at home and at Poplar Forest (Stanton 2012).

Homeowners that chose to install bell systems had to be careful. Installing house bells was a specialized skill; an awkwardly placed pull could be unsightly or unusable, wires could get caught if not run properly, connections of the turning cranks could come loose, and bell springs could be mounted incorrectly (Madill 2013). If any one part of the system did not function as intended, the entire system would not work. Newspaper ads suggested that many English brass founders and bell hangers emigrated to America during a period of economic recovery after the Revolutionary War and were widely available by the turn of the century (Madill 2013, MESDA database). Within days of his election in 1800, President Jefferson ordered two water closets and a bell system to be installed in the White House as soon as possible (Seale 1986). The bells were hung by Mr. William Hedderly by the following summer (Baker 1913).

Bell systems function via a system of wires strung throughout the building (see Figure 2). A bell cord, or pull, was connected to copper wire which ran across walls and down to a bell mounted near the servants’ quarters or work areas. Bell cranks, small brass pivots, changed the direction of wire and allowed the force of the pull to be transferred around corners. The mechanical energy of the user’s pull traveled through the wires and joggled a large coiled spring on which the bell itself was mounted. The spring oscillated, causing the clapper of the bell to swing back and forth and create sound.

On American plantations, house slaves performed most of their labor in detached kitchens or work yards, thus interior bell boards were uncommon in the American South (Madill 2013). Most bells were hung outdoors on the rear of a house. A bell’s volume and range depended largely upon its size, so American installers typically assigned each room a different size bell (Madill 2013). Slaves had to listen for bell pitch to determine which room needed service.

Early bell hangers were forced to run wires over fine wood paneling and mount obtrusive hardware on the walls (Madill 2013). In order to minimize unsightly wires, early bell systems featured long, floor-to-ceiling-length decorative cloth or rope bell pulls (Figure 3). Placement of the pulls was as crucial to the system’s installation plan as the running of wires; pulls in bedrooms should be located near beds so homeowners could call servants at night while pulls in libraries were placed away from tall bookshelves so as not to be obscured (Madill 2013). Although only one bell-pull per room was considered necessary, fine rooms sometimes displayed two, often flanking both sides of the fireplace or bed, providing symmetry and visual order as well as communicating the family’s wealth and status.

French Silk Bell Pull

Figure 3: French Silk Embroidered Bell Pull, 1804–14, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the mid 1800s, construction publications promoted a new method of bell hanging using hidden wires carried through small metal tubes sunken in the plaster during house construction (Madill 2013). With hidden wires, came the desire to hide the existence of the system altogether and the vogue for cloth pulls was replaced by the trend for smaller, stylized metal push-levers (Madill 2013). However, while enthusiastically embracing the hidden wires and cranks, many families, especially in the American South, chose to keep their ostentatious decorative bell pulls. Ornamental bell pulls exhibited ladies’ sewing ability, a valued domestic skill in the early nineteenth century. By this time, embroidery and femininity had fused in the public consciousness with larger ideas of domesticity and morality (Farnham 1994). Large embroidered bell tapestries not only publically displayed the finer accomplishments of the ladies of the house, but also reinforced the family’s proper status. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, America’s most widely circulated magazine prior to the Civil War, began printing patterns for embroidered bell pull tapestries in the 1850s, decades after the technology to replace them was introduced (Rose 2004).

Physical evidence of the bell system at Poplar Forest was found during restoration of the main house in the 1990s and early 2000s. An opening in the dining room floor joists at the east wall aligns with the face of the south wall of the east stair pavilion and the south face of the wing (Mesick-Cohen-Waite 1994). Architectural historians believe that a bell pull was probably located somewhere near the dining room fireplace and ran through the floor, through the east cellar room, and along the south wall of the east wing to the kitchen. It is possible that there was only one bell, running from the dining room to the kitchen but architectural evidence does not preclude the possibility of additional pulls and bells whose wires were run through the same opening in the dining room floor to the myriad of service areas in the cellar and along the Wing of Offices.

A house bell system had many working parts; spring mounted bells were connected by wire to activating devices via system of cranks, almost all of which were made of metal. The iron nuts and bolts used during hanging were the same as those used for any other purpose, and thus cannot be identified as part of the bell system in the archaeological record. However, several parts of the system are distinctive enough to be identified if recovered intact.

PF Bell artifacts

Figure 4: Identified Artifacts related to Servant Bell System from Poplar Forest: a. iron carriage spike, b. brass crank with twisted shaft, c. eared brass crank, d. eared brass crank fragment, e. copper alloy bell fragment, f. copper alloy bell fragment.

Six artifacts in the Poplar Forest collection can be conclusively identified as associated with the house bell system: two eared brass cranks, one twisted brass crank shaft, two copper alloy bell fragments, and one iron bell carriage spike (see Figure 4 and Figure 5). Hundreds of iron and brass artifacts have been recovered from Poplar Forest that are too corroded and fragmented to be reliably identified but may have been components of the bell system. Some of these metal pieces may have once belonged to bell springs or carriage plates. Other items in the collection that could have been parts of a bell system include various escutcheon-like brass hardware and huge amounts of iron and copper wire.

bell table of PF stuff

Figure 5: Identified Artifacts related to Servant Bell System from Poplar Forest.

The bell system at Poplar Forest provides an opportunity to incorporate a wider understanding of the enslaved experience into the interpretation of the main house. Planters generally regarded their domestic servants as privileged amongst their slaves. Because planters and their families had more intimate contact with their house slaves, they were often given better food and housing. The enslaved servant’s appearance and behavior was considered a direct reflection on his or her master, so owners took special care to outfit their domestic staff accordingly. In Jefferson’s account books, he recorded annual gratuities to at least two of his most visible slaves Burwell Colbert and John Hemmings (his head carpenter) in addition to providing credit with local merchants for the purchase of clothing.

The bell system at Poplar Forest would have displayed Jefferson’s and his family’s status and moral values to their visitors and reinforced their authority to their enslaved servants. But for Thomas Jefferson, Poplar Forest was a retreat, a place where he could put away public life and simply indulge in those things that made him happiest: reading, thinking, and spending time with family. In a letter to William Short he states that he is “comfortably fixed and attended, have a few good neighbors, and pass my time there in a tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence” (November 24, 1821).

Jefferson enjoyed lively company and thoughtful conversation over a well-prepared meal and good wine. He believed that not only did the presence of servants in the room hinder such discussion, but that the slaves would then be able to gossip to their fellows later on. Frequent White House guest Margaret Bayard Smith recalled Jefferson’s use of various techniques “…so as to make the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary, believing as he did, that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive listeners” (Hunt 1906). Jefferson likely ordered the installation of the bell system at Poplar Forest to preserve as much of his valuable privacy as possible; he could call for a servant when he wanted one, but could otherwise be left to his own pursuits or hold “a free and unrestricted flow of conversation” with a friend without reserve (Hunt 1906).

The use of new devices and amended designs to improve the quality of life was a trait of Jefferson’s that can be seen throughout his life. He bought wheeled serving trays known as étagères during his time in Paris, installed “a set of shelves…so contrived in the wall, that on touching a spring they turned into the room loaded with the dishes placed on them by the servants” in the President’s House during his first term, and a hidden hand-and pulley operated wine dumbwaiter in his dining room fireplace at Monticello. A year after signing the patent for Thomas Moore in 1803, Jefferson paid $13 to purchase an early refrigerator. The same year he acquired a polygraph (in which the writer’s hand moves one pen which is attached to a second that duplicates the original writing) and used it for the rest of his life. Jefferson also had workers build alcove storage in his homes and chairs with swivel seats and tables with swivel tops. It is not surprising that he would look to technology to communicate ‘better’ with his slaves.

Just imagine if he’d had a cell phone.


Baker, Abby Gunn. 1913. “The Erection of the White House.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 16 :120–149

Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2011. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

Crowley, John E. 2003. The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America. Baltimore: JHU Press.

Farnham, Christie Anne. 1994. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: NYU Press.

Hunt, Gaillard S., ed. 1906. The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the Collection of her Grandson, J. Henley Smith. New York: Scribner.

Knight, Henry Cogswell. 1824. Letters from the South and West. Boston, Massachusetts, Richardson and Lord.

Madill, Wendy Danielle. 2013. Noiseless, Automatic Service: The History of Domestic Servant Call Bell Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, 1740-1900. Masters Thesis submitted to Clemson University and College of Charleston.

Mesick-Cohen-Waite-Architects. 1994. Report on Phase III-C Investigations, Vol. II, July 1994. Internal Document.

Murdoch, Tessa Violet. 2006. Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses. England: J. Adamson Publishers.

Murtha, Hillary. 2010. “Instruments of Power: Sonic Signaling Devices and American Labor Management, 1821–1876”. Ph.D. dissertation submitted to University of Delaware.

Roberts, Robert. 1828. The House Servant’s Directory. New York: Munroe and Francis.

Rose, Anne C. 2004. Voices of The Marketplace: American Thought And Culture, 1830-1860. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Seale, William. 1986. The President’s House: A History. vol 1. New York and Washington DC: White House Historical Association and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Stanton, Lucia. 2012. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Trollope, Frances. 1832. Domestic Manners of the Americans. Whittaker, Treacher.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1982. Segmented Worlds and Self: Group Life and Individual Consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weiner, Marli F. 1998. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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Artifacts from the Carriage Turnaround: the Long Hutter (19th) Century

“So the ages have their dress and undress;
And the gentlemen and ladies of Victoria’s time are satisfied with their manner of raiment…”

Today the second part of our artifact series on the Carriage turnaround will highlight several Hutter period artifacts. The Hutters owned Poplar Forest for 118 years beginning with Emily “Emma” Cobbs’ marriage to Edward Sixtus Hutter in 1840, and continuing to 1946 when James Watts bought the property. The pair are pictured below. Emma’s parents, William and Marian Cobbs were quite happy to give E.S. Hutter control of Poplar Forest’s estate management upon his marriage to their daughter. The Cobbses continued to live with Edward and Emma at Poplar Forest to the end of their lives. The untimely deaths of Emma and Edward from illnesses in the 1870 and 1875 respectively, left behind their children and grandmother Marian Cobbs. Not long after the passing of Marian Cobbs in 1877, Hutter descendants began renting Poplar Forest to tenants until it came under the care of youngest son Christian Sixtus Hutter in the late 19th and early 20th century (Marmon 1991: 88, 96-97). Little is known about the tenants from this time period. During C.S. Hutter’s ownership, Poplar Forest was mainly used as a “summer house” and farmed by tenant farmers who lived in other houses on the property.

Emma and Edward Hutter in Victorian dress

Emma and Edward S. Hutter. Image date unknown but probably between 1840-1870

Most of the known Hutter-era occupation materials in the Carriage Turnaround are ironstone table and teawares and later transfer printed earthenwares. These are artifacts of the Victorian table, but not objects you can really pin down to usage by individuals. Therefore, while cataloging the turnaround artifacts, I was delighted to find several probable Hutter-era personal artifacts in the Carriage turnaround material.

First up, we unearthed a waistcoat button from under the boxwood rootmat in the eastern part of the turnaround:

Glass swirl inset button from a man's waistcoat

Glass swirl inset button from a man’s waistcoat
c. 1850-1880

This button is composed of a flat-faced glass accent with two canes of colorless or slightly pink/lavender glass and opaque white glass twisted into a spiral, set in a cast or plated(?) copper alloy setting with a wire-eye. The copper setting may have had a wavy decorative edge to it. The button had not been cleaned at the time of the photo above, but it will be sent out for a cleaning by a professional conservator. It is likely to be a waistcoat button due to its small size, less than 9 mm in diameter. Glass-set waistcoat buttons such as this one were popular between 1850-1880 (Hughes & Lester: 155).

Similar glass-swirled "Jewel" waistcoat button in white and black swirl

Similar glass-swirled “Jewel” waistcoat button

Who could have worn a waistcoat? Waistcoats were close-fitting vest-like garments worn under jackets, like the one Edward Sixtus Hutter is wearing. Mr. Hutter’s photograph was taken sometime between the 1840s to 1870s, well within the given time range of these types of buttons. We can’t tell from the sepia tone of E.S. Hutter’s image if it was this very waistcoat, but this button would have featured similarly on some man’s torso at Poplar Forest during the latter half of the mid-19th century. Waistcoats tended to be a male-gendered clothing article, and one of the most colorful parts of the Victorian male wardrobe (Shannon 2006: 76-77). This button is one of the few items from the turnaround we can say was used by a specific gender. Perhaps with these pretty glass buttons, the wearer intended his waistcoat to be an expression of his own unique taste within the strict dictates of Victorian male fashion.

A similar button made with green and white cane twist can be seen in Hughes and Lester’s Big Book of Buttons (plate 59, button 14). A search of Pinterest also yielded one other similar example, pictured above (R.C.Larner Buttons 2014). Collectors today call buttons like this with glass centers and metal rims by the fancy term of “jewels.” An example of a waistcoat with “jewel” buttons can be seen in the below vest from the Metropolitan Museum collections. (I’ve added a button detail inset). These glass buttons don’t have swirls like ours does, but they are similar in form. This waistcoat dates from the 1860s and is titled a “wedding waistcoat.” Waistcoats were not just for weddings though; they were an integral part of the gentleman’s wardrobe. No waistcoat? Not a gentleman! Without a waistcoat on, a gentleman was considered “undressed”, even in his own home. Note that “undressed” by the Victorian definition often meant that one was wearing clothing to work in for an occupation (Victoriana 2013). Showing oneself in polite company in “undress” implied a person was not a proper gentleman, or was of a lower socioeconomic class.

Waistcoat with similar type of glass button embellishment but with flower inset, not a swirled inset (c. 1860s)

Waistcoat with similar type of glass button embellishment (c. 1860s) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections

The second artifact I’m highlighting today is another gendered clothing fastener, which could have belonged to one of the female occupants of the Hutter household. It is from a corset busk and would have been part of the metal fasteners on the front of corsets that provide rigidity to the front of the undergarment. Several pieces of busk hooks and eyes were recovered from the turnaround, indicating at least one or more busks were discarded in this area. Other fragments have been recovered from the Clumps and Oval Beds project and the Wing of Offices. This type of busk was a dividing busk, composed of two stiff steel ribs with metal hooks and eyes, which enabled better ease of removal. An example of a dividing busk corset from the Met Museum collections is also shown below. The Met museum example dates to 1860, but dividing busks were available by the 1830s; this specific type of “slot and stud” fastening busk was patented in 1848 and in regular use from the 1850s until the early 20th century [Steele 2001: 43].

Corset busk "slot" hook from a Victorian steel dividing busk

Corset busk fragment with a “slot” hook from a Victorian steel dividing busk

Emma Cobbs Hutter could potentially have worn corsets with a steel dividing corset busk during her lifetime at Poplar Forest from adolescence in the 1830s until her death in 1870. The gown shown in the above image of the Hutters and the usual female fashions of the period would have required a corset underneath as a foundation to obtain the proper silhouette. Like the waistcoat to a gent, no Victorian woman of respect would have been caught in public in a dress without a corset underneath to give her the proper figure. Women saw corsets as a necessity to construct an ideal of feminine beauty and respectability (Steele 2001: 35, 42).

Basic mid-Victorian era mass-market manufactured corset with dividing busk

Basic mid-Victorian era mass-market manufactured corset with dividing busk using “slot and stud” fasteners. From Metropolitan Museum collections, c. 1860s

We know that there were enslaved women living at Poplar Forest during the Hutter era. It is certainly possible this busk is from one of the working women in the Hutter household. Many working-class women wore corsets, and free black women in America also adopted the corset. So did some enslaved women (Steele 2001: 49). If any enslaved women at antebellum Poplar Forest wore corsets, they were probably among the house workers. Unlike colorful waistcoats, corsets were almost always made up of plain white fabric from 1800 until the 1870s (Steele 2001: 39). The only real differences between Emma Hutter’s corsets and those of house slaves or tenant wives and daughters nearby would have been in the quality of fabric and the fit and/or comfort.

Although the waistcoat was meant to be visible and the corset itself was meant to be hidden (yet create a visible silhouette), these were both garments that constructed an image of an ideal man or woman of the leisure class. Without these garments on in polite Victorian company the individual might as well have been considered naked. People of the working classes also wore these garments although they may have donned them only for church or special occasions. The working class individual would also have been likely to own fewer, or just one waistcoat or corset. Given the status of the inhabitants of Poplar Forest, it is likely these were garments owned by individuals in the Hutter family.

Thanks for reading and check back soon- Part three of our Carriage Turnaround artifact discussion will get into the Jeffersonian era!


Sources Cited:

1993 Hughes, Elizabeth and Shannon Lester
The Big Book of Buttons.The J.S. McCarthy Company. Augusta, Maine.

1991 Marmon, Lee
Poplar Forest Research Report, Patt I.

2006 Shannon, Brent
The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914.Ohio University Press.

2001 Steele, Valerie
The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT.

1861 William Makepeace Thackeray
“The Adventures Of Philip.” Harper’s Magazine, Vol 23: June To November 1861. Page 689. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=shIwAAAAMAAJ

2013 “Dressing the 1860s Gentleman.” Victoriana. URL: http://www.victoriana.com/how-to-dress-victorian/

Edward and Emma Hutter. Owned by Poplar Forest

2014 R.C. Larner Buttons”Two Mid-19th C. Glass Overlay Waistcoat Jewel Buttons “ Waistcoat Jewels (Pinterest Board) URL: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/477240891735199629/

Corset. Manufacturer: Langdon, Batcheller & Company. (American, founded 1865) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of E. A. Meister, 1950 Online URL: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/175651?rpp=30&pg=4&ft=corset&when=A.D.+1800-1900&pos=93

“Wedding waistcoat.“ The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of The Misses Mary L. and Katherine Gardner, 1958 Online URL: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/91082?rpp=30&pg=2&ft=waistcoat&when=A.D.+1800-1900&pos=42


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.

FS W6 1

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.

FS W5 2

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.

FS W5 1

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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