Getting their hands dirty

-A A +A
By Tom Wilmoth

For 20-year-old Jed Mabry of Bedford, the past five weeks have been an opportunity for him to literally dig into history.

Mabry, a history major at Liberty University, is excited to take back what he's learned from his time at the 20th annual Summer Field School in Historical Archaeology at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest.

The nine students participating this year wrapped up their work July 4. While Mabry was local, the others came from all over the country, including the states of Virginia, Michigan, Oregon, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania and


The students spent much of their time working on an area looking for a possible stable structure, Mabry said. They uncovered a number of items, working through their 5-foot by 5-foot square areas, digging through it, layer by layer. One page reports were prepared at each layer.

Mabry, who will be a junior next year at LU, hopes to one day be a history professor. "You learn so much," he said of his experience this summer at Poplar Forest. "You're digging up history, right before your eyes."

According to a release on the program, Jefferson designed the octagonal house and surrounding landscape during his second term as President of the United States and sojourned here in his retirement to find rest and leisure, spend time with his grandchildren and rekindle his creativity. Archaeology is ongoing at Poplar Forest and each day archaeologists conduct excavations, examine artifacts and study documents to gain insight into the slave community that lived and worked here as well as

details about Jefferson's intricate landscape design.

The archaeology field school participant excavated an area directly outside of Jefferson_s ornamental grounds. Located almost 400 yards from the main house, this space may have been the location of structures and work spaces that included stables, slave quarters, Jefferson's vegetable garden, and the plantation's plant nursery. During the field school the students uncovered a cobbled surface, a possible foundation trench for a demolished building, and post-holes that may be related to a fence line that separated the ornamental grounds from the more utilitarian structures and areas.

"The Poplar Forest field school truly integrates our mission of public education with our ongoing research into Jefferson's plantation and retreat," said Jack Gary, director of Archaeology and Landscapes, in a press release. "Not only do our students gain intimate knowledge of Poplar Forest's history, but they also learn the basic skills of archaeological and historical research ? plus Poplar Forest gets five weeks of very enthusiastic field students."

The five-week summer field school provides its students with a foundation in the current methods and theories of historical archaeology and offers a solid introduction to the practical skills of site survey, excavation, recording, and laboratory procedures. Historical archaeology uses primary documents, excavation, and the study of artifacts to illuminate the lives of both influential individuals such as Jefferson, as well as the everyday lives of poorly documented groups such as the slaves that lived and worked at Poplar Forest.

Students spent 40 hours a week at Poplar Forest with time split between the current excavation site and the archaeology laboratory. They had the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art equipment, software, and outside analysts. Weekly readings and lectures by staff and noted authorities covered such topics as landscape history, plantation life, 19th century material culture, professional opportunities in historical archaeology, and the role of public archaeology. This year, the field school also visited Fairfield plantation in Gloucester County, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Monticello to see examples of other public sites engaged in historical archaeology in Virginia.