Archaeologists have been searching for evidence of the landscape at Poplar Forest during Jefferson’s time.
Jefferson carved his villa retreat from his plantation at Poplar Forest. At the center stood the octagonal house with its ornamental landscape. The house and immediate grounds were part of the curtilage, a 61-acre enclosed landscape that was the largest section of the domestic part of the plantation. The curtilage served as a transition from the ornamental landscape nearest the house to the agricultural fields, and contained orchards, vegetable gardens, slave quarters, and farm-related buildings. Outside the curtilage were fields of the main cash crops, tobacco and wheat.
Jefferson’s vision for his retreat was an integration of the natural and architectural—a retreat environment with roots in the Roman concept of a rural villa. He chose a site in the midst of his working plantation at Poplar Forest to take that vision from idea to reality.
Jefferson’s landscapes— both the designed 61-acre curtilage or villa environment he created, and the diverse fabric of his plantation—are still in the first or investigative phase. Archeology gives us the exciting opportunity to discover more about Thomas Jefferson and the plantation community at Poplar Forest. The first sites that archaeologists have found—both ornamental and farm-related sites— have clearly demonstrated the tremendous potential to discover Jefferson’s full vision for this retreat and how his plantation functioned.
Most of Jefferson’s retreat landscape and farm landscape has vanished visually. A few maps survive of part of the farm, but no Jefferson-era drawings of the designed retreat grounds are known to exist. While Jefferson’s records, planting memoranda and letters provide many clues, it is through extensive excavating and lab analysis that archaeologists can develop a more complete picture of the gardens, grounds, and farm. Once archaeology brings those features into sharp focus, they can be restored.
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