Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Along Mulberry Row: Research and Archaeology

More than fifteen years ago, an African-American visitor to Monticello looked down Mulberry Row and said to Getting Word project director Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, “It’s as if we’ve been erased.” Mulberry Row, the 1,000-foot-long road just south of the main house, was once was lined with almost twenty dwellings and workshops. Little survived past the nineteenth century and only three structures remain today--and only in part or greatly altered. A current view of Mulberry Row includes little more than mulberry trees and a green expanse of grass. Projects are under way to make it a very different scene.

Many years of research are making possible a plan to reconstruct some of the Mulberry Row buildings. Since the 1980s, archaeologists have been uncovering and analyzing the buried vestiges of a bustling community two hundred years earlier. The lives and working conditions of the African Americans who lived and labored on Mulberry Row are revealed by remains of buildings and hundreds of thousands of artifacts--ceramic shards, chicken bones, nails, sewing tools, and even a piece of slate with words scratched on it. In 1998 and 1999 Research Fellow Martha Hill

Over the past year, for example, they have continued excavation of the site of Monticello’s farm quarters, including a dwelling for slaves from the 1770s. Information from site archaeology excavations and soil studies sheds light on the transition from tobacco to wheat culture in the 1790s and how it affected the work routines and living conditions of the enslaved laborers here.

For additional information about various archaeological projects see the pages on archaeological the Monticello Department of Archaeology web site, The Monticello Plantation Database, or visit the Digital Archaeological Archive of Chesapeake Slavery.


Research Fellow Martha Hill conducted a two-year long project aimed at understanding life on Mulberry Row, the 1,000-foot road that was the center of plantation activity during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime. The examination of written and archaeological findings yielded a wealth of information, including an annotated bibliography recording references to Mulberry Row and an analysis of archaeological excavations.

The study of archaeological artifacts shed light on the structure and contents of the dwellings for the enslaved workers. Hill recognized several hardened chunks of clay as pieces of chinking from an early log building, the residence of several enslaved families. Not only did these remnants show that the house was covered with clapboards, but they also bore the marks of the hand of the man who pressed the damp clay between the logs. While we don’t know who left those fingerprints, they are a clear reminder of the work undertaken and completed by enslaved laborers.

By bringing together both the written and archaeological record this project has brought us much closer to learning who may have lived in particular buildings. We now know the probable dwelling of enslaved woodworker John Hemings and his wife Priscilla, and have identified some of their possessions, including a mirror, a piece of furniture with a lockable drawer, and a Bible. For additional information visit the Monticello Department of Archaeology web site.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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