Archaeology & Landscape Restoration

Wing of Offices

Jefferson’s Wing of Offices was added in 1814 between the east side of the house and the east mound. Poplar Forest’s archaeologists have conducted two sets of excavations to locate and understand this important part of Jefferson’s retreat.

The first excavations took place between 1989 and 1991 to locate the foundation of the Wing. The second excavations took place between 2000 and 2009 to record additional archaeological material affected during the Wing’s reconstruction/restoration.

First Wing Excavation

The bulk of the excavation was done 1989-1991, when archaeologists uncovered the remains of the Wing and part of the yard in front of it. They found the original brick floors, stone hearths, wall foundations, and a stone retaining wall, as well as thousands of artifacts from Jefferson’s time.

The architectural remains and artifacts showed that the wing was 100 feet long and nearly 23 feet wide, with a covered passageway along its southern face. The evidence also indicated how the wing was used. A narrow L-shaped space, open to the south, separated the house from the first full room. This first room was unheated, and may have served as storage. Next came a kitchen, a cook’s room (that may have doubled as a laundry), and a smokehouse.

Artifacts retrieved from the excavation include: a fork with a bone handle, dyed green in imitation of jade, Chinese porcelain tea and coffee wares, and English transfer-printed plates.

The artifacts confirm what granddaughter Ellen said about Poplar Forest: “It was furnished in the simplest manner, but had a very tasty air; there was nothing common or second rate about any part of the establishment though there was no appearance of expense.” Jefferson incorporated many features in the wing considered modern for the time.

Archaeological evidence suggests that some time in the 1840s, the wing no longer stood. The family who owned the property at the time tore down the two rooms closest to the house, and refashioned the remaining two rooms into a freestanding kitchen and a smaller smokehouse. In the 20th century, the two buildings were reconnected by a narrow room that served as a bathroom. The entire complex was converted to a guesthouse.

Second Wing Excavation

The second excavations were done in the winter of 2000-2001 before reconstruction of the Wing began, and the winter of 2008-2009 as the reconstruction drew to a close. It involved several areas, which had not been examined in the first excavations, and were to be impacted by construction-related activities.

In 2000-2001, excavations took place to prepare for a new drainage system to be installed beneath the Wing by the Poplar Forest restoration team. These excavations were located beneath the original floor brick and in the vicinity of a Jefferson-era wall that supported the colonnade for Wing of Offices. Archaeologists found a variety of Jefferson-era artifacts, which included ceramic sherds, nails, animal bone, bottle glass, and a fork from Jefferson’s era along with artifacts from later periods.

They also found a thin layer of charcoal and hearth debris in front of the kitchen fireplace. A thicker layer filled with chipped stone, which may mark where the ground surface was when Jefferson’s masons built the original chimney stack for the Wing’s kitchen was also recovered. Samples of charcoal and other burned material were recovered from the hearth for laboratory analysis. In addition, archaeologists searched for the evidence of planting holes and other landscaping features in order to collection additional information about the landscape of Poplar Forest before and after the construction of Jefferson’s east mound.

In 2008-2009, excavations occurred north of Jefferson’s Wing of Offices for a visitor’s handicap lift and stairway. During the excavations, archaeologists located several planting features and a small posthole, which date to Jefferson’s time or more recent periods. A wide variety of artifacts were recovered. The most intriguing were sherds of Jefferson-era black basalt and a large number of hand-made wrought iron nails. These nails were found in a layer of soil, which contained brick and charcoal flecks and could be destruction debris from the original Wing, or main house, after a fire in 1845. Other artifacts that were reflected the use of the detached kitchen and smokehouse that was built after the Wing was torn down. These included flow blue ceramics and chimney glass from a kerosene lamp.