Sunday, September 12, 2010

Monticello archaeologists focused on slave life

Thomas Jefferson is known as one of the great architects of independence, but largely out of sight of his esteemed guests at Monticello was a world of enslavement, which archaeologists are gradually bringing to life through archaeology excavations.

“We want to be able to show what life was like then,” said Thomas Jefferson Foundation spokeswoman Lisa Stites, adding that a true picture would show the world of Jefferson’s slaves. Jefferson had as many as 200 slaves at any given time.

“That’s one of the things we do with archaeology, is try to get it back to what it would have been like in Jefferson’s time,” Stites said.

Slaves had guns, for example, for purposes such as hunting. And slave shelters grew farther from their overseers’ dwelling in Jefferson’s older years, beginning sometime around the 1790s, according to archaeological findings. It’s a signal that Jefferson’s slaves may have been given more autonomy as the slavery establishment at Monticello aged.

Archaeologists at Monticello have been surveying the third president’s land since 1997. About 1,800 shovel test pits have been dug. While most of the pits, which are about a foot deep and a foot wide, have revealed nothing, others are helping archaeologists paint a clearer picture of life on the grounds of Monticello.

Fraser D. Neiman, director of archaeology for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, said too few people understand slave life at Monticello. He said the foundation might soon unveil plans for new tourist exhibits to shed more light on slave life at Monticello.

Neiman said he hopes there will be new exhibits within a year or so showcasing some of the archaeology excavation findings to the public.

Archaeologists are able to pinpoint the location of slave shelters at Monticello largely because those sites have a large concentration of buried items likely to have been found in slave shelters. Experts believe they can stamp time periods on various items because of developments in ceramics throughout the decades, among other indicators.

A major development in the slave world at Monticello was the construction of slave shelters in later years that housed only one family.

It was common in earlier years, Neiman said, for multiple families to reside in one shelter. Inside the multi-family shelters were pits designated to individual families for personal storage.

Neiman said it was not unusual for slaves to own guns in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Though there were some rebellions in the United States, many slaves did not rebel because they feared they would not be able to rally enough support, Neiman said, and if they did break free, finding a safe place to settle could be a challenge.

Stites said the world of slavery being dug up by archaeologists speaks to the paradox of Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence, which says “all men are created equal,” while also owning slaves throughout his life.

Unlike President George Washington’s slaves, who were freed after Washington’s death, nearly all of Jefferson’s slaves were sold after he died, to pay his debt.

Many of Jefferson’s accomplishments can be credited to the work of slaves who created the “economic foundation” for the Jefferson family, Neiman said.

Neiman said archaeologists have conducted excavations on about 400 acres of what had been Jefferson property, but Neiman hopes to expand the excavations through much of the 1,600 remaining acres, which could lead to as many as 5,000 archaeology excavations and take perhaps five more years to finish.

“The overall goal,” Neiman said, “is to show what really happened at Monticello.”

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