Historical Archaeology at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

1 Feb

Thomas Jefferson is famous for many things: author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, and the man who authorized the Lewis and Clark expedition. Less well known is that many consider him to be America’s first scientific archaeologist.

Monticello                                                                     http://www.monticello.org

Most people associate archaeology with prehistory. This makes perfect sense because the vast majority of the human past is prehistoric; it occurred before the development of written records. But there is a subfield of archaeology called historical archaeology: “Study of archaeological sites in conjunction with historical records” (Fagan 2012:332). In other words, archaeology explores the entire human past, from our ancient proto-human ancestors to the relatively recent historical times of Thomas Jefferson.

Occasionally, students ask why there is any need for historical archaeology. After all, if these times are described in written histories, what do we have to gain by digging up what we already know? Historical times should be less mysterious than the distant past – and they are – but excavations can reveal much that we would otherwise never know about life in historical contexts.

The archaeological record and historical record are both imperfect, incomplete representations of the past. The archaeological record is incomplete because human behavior is impermanent, and even the material remains of human behavior rarely preserve for us to find.

The historical record is equally incomplete because, though authors may record events in vivid detail, historical documents reflect only one point of view, often a point of view that excludes or ignores many others. Worse, historical records can be intentionally deceptive. Humans are fallible and it’s tempting to selectively edit our personal stories and the histories of our societies – to make us look a little better to the people of the future. (Case in point: Jefferson certainly never volunteered the information that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a fact known to Hemings’ descendents and confirmed by genetic testing). A desire to erase mistakes or exaggerate accomplishments is all too human.

I could go on about the limitations of written histories, but the point is that historical records aren’t always completely truthful or accurate. The archaeological record, for all its imperfections, never intentionally lies to us. Therefore it can be an excellent supplement to history; a way of confirming or questioning what we “already know” or revealing unknown things not recorded in history.

Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation Monticello is a perfect example of how much historical archaeology can reveal about the lives of everyone. History records much about famous elites like Jefferson, much less about everyday people. Only more recent scholarship, in conjunction with archaeological excavations, has shed light on the lives of Monticello’s slave population.

Today, anyone can visit Monticello, and they do an excellent job of public education and outreach. If you have an interest in historical archaeology and happen to be within traveling distance of Charlottesville, Virginia, they are offering a free Archaeology Family Workshop soon:


Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center

Saturday, February 9, 2013,10:00 am – 12:00 pm

Reservations: Required (434) 984-9880

This two-hour workshop provides a hands-on introduction to archaeology at Monticello. In a classroom setting participants engage in a mock archaeological excavation. While handling and observing authentic artifacts, participants work together to uncover evidence about the people who lived at Monticello.

For children in grades 4 through 7 accompanied by an adult.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: