The largest feature is a trench, or gully, that spans the length of the site. This gully feature has been completely filled in with different layers of soil by past residents of Poplar Forest. The original function of this gully is unknown, however it is likely that it was a natural feature created by erosion, possibly due to clearing and plowing during the late 18th century. The edges of this gully are approximately 8 feet wide, however the fill placed in this feature spills over the banks and spans approximately 25 feet in some sections. The depth ranges from 3 to 4 feet. Too large to excavate fully, two cross sections have been excavated across the gully in order to recover any dateable artifacts from the fill soil and provide full profiles of the feature. The first cross section (North bisect) revealed few artifacts, predominantly small fragments of brick within bright red silty loam. The second cross section (South bisect), excavated at the far southern end of Site B, however has revealed several layers of soil mixed with charcoal, patches of sand and gravel, and numerous fragments of ceramic, nails, brick, and bottle glass. Two “column bricks”, the specially formed bricks used to construct the columns on the main house, found in this end of the gully fill indicates that it was filled in sometime after the construction of the main house between 1805 and 1809. At least three creamware chamber pots have been identified in this cross section, as well as fragments of a transfer printed plate with blue willow design (c.1795 – 1830), fragments of creamware plates (c.1762 – 1820), and pieces of redware storage jars. Small features, possibly planting holes, dot the fill and contain concentrations of small cobbles and household refuse such as ceramics, bottle glass, nails, and even a copper straight pin. The mending of fragments of a ceramic bowl found in the gully fill and a planting hole for a clump of ornamental trees in front of the house may suggest that this area is being used for composting. Mixing hearth sweepings, kitchen trash, and manure was a common practice for creating rich loams for plants. Was the gully a convenient spot to collect and mix this refuse?
The second largest feature is a stone lined drain that runs along the edge of the gully fill. Constructed in two parts, possibly at different times, the drain is similar in many ways to the types of stone drains Jefferson had installed along the front of the wing of offices and down the banks of the sunken lawn. The southern end of the Site B drain is constructed in a shallow bowl shaped trench and filled with quartz gravel and schist. The northern end of the drain however consists of a more formally laid channel of quartz cobbles in the base of a shallow trench and covered with a hard-packed surface of brick and schist rubble. The excavation of several cross sections of the northern end of the drain revealed a layer of silty loam underneath the rubble surface and surrounding the cobble channel. This layer may be accumulated sediment from water running through the drain. The exact function of the hard-packed rubble is not known, but may have served as a surface over which animals or people could move without destroying the underlying drain. The nature of the material, including poorly fired brick and flat fragments of schist, may suggest that it is construction debris. Schist was favored by Jefferson as a material for foundations, and was used for that purpose in the main house and wing of offices. The fragments found at Site B, much smaller than the blocks used in the foundations, may have been debris from shaping the larger stones used in those construction projects.
A third feature type found at Site B, are concentrations of brick and unmortared brick pads. The largest of these features sits at the junction between the two segments of the stone lined drain. The roughly square nature of this 4 x 4 ft unmortared pad suggests that it was intentionally laid and not just an episode of dumping within the rubble fill of the drain, which may have been the case with Feature 3210. Another, smaller pad is located approximately 13 feet north, lying on top of the large gully fill. A third concentration of brick is connected to this small pad by a line of rubble stretching approximately 14.5 feet to the east. This third concentration is not as consolidated as the two pads, and may have been more severely disturbed through plowing. The purpose of these features is still uncertain, but some possibilities include drainage for garden beds and structural piers to support a wood-framed building.
The fourth group of features are small circular stains filled with charcoal. These features are found across Site B and no spatial organization for their layout has been recognized yet. A total of eleven have been identified by the end of 2007. These roughly .5 ft diameter features are characteristic of root stains, with the excavated examples exhibiting conical profiles, and multiple “tunnels” snaking away from the main feature. They post-date the filling of the large gully as several examples cut through the fill soil. The origins of the charcoal and the types of plants these stains may represent are currently unknown. Is the charcoal the result of the plant burning, or is it like most planting features around Poplar Forest, added into the soil as fertilizer? Identifying the charcoal in these features will help answer this question.
Excavation and laboratory analysis will continue on all of these features in order to better understand their functions. The purpose and depositional history for these features will be the best indication of what Site B was actually used for during Jefferson’s time at Poplar Forest. Through the recent award of a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we will undertake several types of specialized analysis on the large gully. Geomorphological and geochemical analysis conducted on the soil in the fill will provide the most accurate picture of how the gully was originally formed and provide clues as to where the fill came from. In particular, the chemical analysis will allow us to test the idea that the gully was used to collect compost that may have been part of a nursery facility. The results of these tests will be presented here over the next two years.