At the center of the plantation stood the octagonal house set within its ornamental landscape. The house and immediate grounds were part of the curtilage, an enclosed area of 61 acres that defined the heart of Jefferson’s retreat after 1813. Within the larger enclosure, an additional 10-acre fenced area surrounded the main house. It contained the most highly designed landscape of the retreat. The remainder of the curtilage contained orchards, vegetable gardens, slave quarters and service buildings necessarily located near the main dwelling. It served as a transition from the ornamental landscape nearest the house to the working farm of fields, pasturage and woodlots.
Poplar Forest archaeologists have researched the location of the curtilage fence, as well as its construction and materials. The fence appears to have been put up in the late winter and early spring of 1812-1813. Described as moveable, it is believed to have been a Virginia ‘snake’ or ‘worm’ fence constructed of stacked rails. In fall 2002, archaeologists reconstructed one small part of the fence using black locust rails (see photo at right). The section flanks the upper part of the entrance drive to the house.
The previous year, archaeologists began exploring an artificial terrace about 100 yards southeast of the house in an area that straddles the edge of the historic 10-acre core. They discovered concentrated stone, brick and mortar, suggesting the location of a building that was dismantled and buried by the 1860s or 1870s. This area is known as Site A.
By 2003, the evidence uncovered in two seasons of excavation—a large deposit of building stone, suggestive of a chimney, a subfloor pit, and thousands of domestic artifacts – indicated that an antebellum slave cabin once stood there. The building was likely constructed of log, so no evidence of walls remains to indicate the size of the structure. Across Virginia from the late 17th century through the mid-19th century, enslaved plantation workers dug pits in or beneath the floors of their cabins to store food and personal belongings. Artifacts recovered from the Poplar Forest site include coins, marbles, tools, ceramics, bottle and drinking glass and thousands of animal bones from meals consumed in the 1840s and 1850s.
The antebellum cabin sat on top of a thick layer of red clay fill that is believed to have been deposited there in the early 19th century, perhaps at the time that the Wing of Offices was under construction, to transform a sloping hillside into a fairly level terrace. Beneath the fill, archaeologists have found evidence of another building that most likely dates to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
About 20 yards east of the antebellum slave cabin site, archaeologists have found another probable Jefferson-era building site now known as Site B. Artifacts from the late 18th and early 19th century have been recovered in that excavation. So far, our work has shown that this area was being extensively used and changed by the plantation community.
Several complicated features have been uncovered over the past four years. These include a stone-lined drain, charcoal filled root stains, piles of unmortared brick, and a large ceramic and charcoal-filled gully. Though still not fully understood, we think that these features may be evidence of past horticultural activities that were taking place within the curtilage at the request of Jefferson.
The remains of several broken dishes from Site B mend with those found in several ornamental plantings from around the main house. This tells us that there were important connections between these two portions of the site during Jefferson’s day. Perhaps Site B was the location of the ornamental plant nursery, which Jefferson refers to in several documents. Maybe trash, along with animal manure, hearth sweepings, and other domestic debris was brought here to enrich the soils being used to nurture Jefferson’s many trees and shrubs.
One thing that we do know for certain is that much of the “trash” that was deposited at Site B has already been able to give us important new insights into what life was like at Poplar Forest. The types of ceramics, building debris, and other materials found at Site B are shedding light on the evolution of the grounds, as well as the daily practices of the enslaved community whose hands shaped the Poplar Forest landscape. Analysis and excavation will continue in 2008, and a recent grant awarded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services is providing us the chance to undertake the scientific studies needed to better understand the history of this complex portion of the plantation.