As Mr. Jefferson put it, this journey centers around my desire to strengthen my own educational pursuits in the field of historical studies and now archaeology, in hopes of gaining all the knowledge possible to make me a well-rounded historian in the future. The program I am currently studying with is the Thomas Jefferson Archaeological Field School, which operates on 2,500 acres of the once 5,000 acre Jefferson land holding in partnership with The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in order to excavate the slave quarters surrounding the main house (Monticello) and farm (Monticello gardens).
Today was the first day all of the students actually got on "site," which for the program serves about 1.8 miles of land and excavation pits, basically today was orientation. We arrived at the Monticello Visitor Center (located about .45 miles downhill from the main house) at 8:20AM and immediately went straight into lectures on the previous night's reading assignment by Dr. Fraser D. Neiman. The lecture was a crash course in everything we (as Monticello archaeologists) need to know, topics primarily ranged from the beginning of the Chesapeake region's geoarchaeological history, when the European and N. American plates collided beneath Pangea (forming the Appalachian Mountain range) and thus created a certain erosion process which left Virginia split into two different types of soil, thick clay soil (the red clay of Monticello or the Piedmont) and the soft coastal soils (Virginia Coastal region, i.e., Jamestown Fort and Settlement).
Another topic deeply stressed in today's lectures surrounded Thomas Jefferson and Monticello's transitions from a tobacco plantation (c. 1770-1796) to a wheat plantation (c. 1796-1828) and what these transitions meant for the enslaved community's working and living conditions. Mainly we discussed the change in the expansion of slave houses, in relation to the switch from tobacco to wheat, which was a surprisingly fascinating lecture! During the lecture we discussed and tried to figure the reasoning behind the shift in the slave's house size. Various hypothesis included the practical agricultural reasons for the change in size, when planting tobacco an agricultural technique known as "swidden" farming, this form of farming requires large gang labor with one overseer to maintain work progress, then when Jefferson decided to switch to wheat in 1790 (before the outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars), the agricultural approach changed as well. Wheat required only small group of slave workers (opposed to large gangs as with tobacco), but a larger number of overseers to maintain surveillance. Jefferson did not wish to hire the numerous overseers his wheat crops would have required, he allowed his slaves (cheaper than white overseers) to control and oversee their own small work groups on what is known as "quarter farms," and it is for this reason the slaves of Monticello began to gain marginal improvements in their own lifestyles, such as housing.
As a result, the slave quarters went from large log structures with several "floor pits" or "Hidey holes" (as I will discuss later), to a smaller log structures with fewer and fewer sub-floor pits, and eventually in 1800 the floor pits disappear entirely. The sub-floor pits support the possibility that slave's were able to choose their own housing arrangements as a result of the change from to tobacco to wheat, due to the "safe deposit box" theory behind these sub-floor pits. In the early, large group slave quarters (while Monticello was a tobacco farm) these sub-floor pits served as safety deposit boxes for the multiple residents. Due to the fact that these large groupings of slaves had no control over who lived with them, the sub-floor pits were used for individual safe storage from the other roommates, this brings forward individual accountability for thieves within the slave community.
This summer, our program's excavation of "Site 6" (c. 1800-1830) and "Site 8" (c. 1775-1800) will search for these sub-floor pits, the housing foundations (if any remain), and any and all ceramics, iron work, or any leftover independent materials to reverse engineer these structures to determine more about the enslaved community's life at Jefferson's Monticello. I will be posting every day about that day's lecture or field work to keep you informed on my learning adventure! STAY TUNED!