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Archaeology at Poplar Forest details time before and after Jefferson

Archaeology at Poplar Forest details time before and after Jefferson

New road will guide visitors through extensive grounds


Big changes are coming to Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s historic home and plantation in Bedford County.

At a tour on Saturday, Jack Gary, the director of archaeology, explained that a new two-lane “Polar Forest Parkway” will soon be constructed to make the property more accessible, and make use of an extensive section of unused land.

To prepare for the road, Poplar Forest’s archaeologists excavated 4,000 small sites of land along the path it will take. That way, they can make sure the road doesn’t cover up anything historically important, and also get ideas for signage and information about what they found along the road’s route. Of these 4,000 test pits, the archaeologists found more than 30 archeological sites.

In some of the sites, Gary said, the archaeologists found daub. This clay-like substance was used as mortar in log cabins, and to fireproof wooden chimneys. That meant that these areas were likely populated by enslaved people, who would have lived in log cabins in Jefferson’s time. In another site, which Gary said was thought likely to have been near a road in Thomas Jefferson’s era, archaeologists found a broken horse bit. This confirmed their hypothesis, Gary said. Finding this broken horse bit was the equivalent of finding a muffler on the side of the road today.

Mike Beasley, who came to Polar Forest from Manassas, Virginia with his wife Wanda Beasley, said a bigger, two-lane road to access Poplar Forest would be “great.”

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“We thought we were on the wrong road,” when they arrived, he said, he and his wife saying in particular that they were surprised to cross a little one-lane bridge on the way to the site.

The archaeologists not only found artifacts from Jefferson’s time along the planned road route, but also some arrow and spear heads dating as far back as 8,000 years ago. They also found a section of burned chestnut wood that was dated to the mid-1600s. It could have burned from a natural fire, or from American Indians intentionally setting a fire to clear the area. Gary said that was actually one of his favorite finds.

“It’s probably the least visually exciting, but I find that burned layer and being able to date it to 1640 A.D., and to be able to look at the environment at that time, that was really instructive to be able to do that because that gives us a whole new look at this property,” he said.

One of the tour attendees asked if there was any civil war-related history at Poplar Forest, and Gary responded that yes, in fact, Union troops had passed over the property and freed some enslaved people and took some livestock. Just recently, Gary’s team actually found a cannon ball buried in the front yard of the house that the soldiers had presumably left. The archeologists had to call the bomb squad, who said the best course of action was to blow the cannon ball up so that it was no longer dangerous. Gary explained that they rigged the explosives, and the President and CEO, Jeffrey Nichols, got to press the big red button – on his birthday.

Rebecca Sumey, who came all the way from Washington state and describes herself as a “history buff” said she felt the tour gave “such a sense of how things were made and how people live.”

“I think that’s amazing,” she said.

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