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G. William Monaghan
Glenn Black Laboratory

Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010

IU archaeology lab bores into U.S. history at Thomas Jefferson's home

April 7, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A visit to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Va., is a trip back into the world just as Jefferson knew it. Or not.

Over the centuries various landscaping efforts have obscured and buried features of the original Monticello landscape, so today, members of the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University Bloomington are working with Monticello archaeological staff to help restore Monticello to its appearance as it was during Jefferson's lifetime.

Monticello Research

A team of researchers from IU Bloomington and Monticello use the Glenn Black Lab's electrical resistivity profiler to discover long-buried roads around the historic Virginia home.

During a March 2010 research trip, a Glenn Black Laboratory team, led by Interim Director G. William Monaghan and funded by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, helped document 18th-century landscape modifications undertaken by Jefferson during and after the construction of Monticello.

Monaghan, a senior scientist and geoarchaeologist, was assisted by IU Bloomington undergraduate students Joel Marshall and Luke Walker. The team conducted a landscape study to find evidence of two lost roads: a "kitchen road" that serviced the Monticello kitchen, and a formal carriageway that circled along the Ellipse Fence marking the edge of the East Lawn and the formal landscape in front of Monticello.

"This latest research at Monticello continues a tradition of innovative archaeological uses of remote sensing that was started by Glenn Black himself," said Geoffrey Conrad, associate vice provost for research at IU Bloomington and director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. "The Glenn Black Laboratory is a leader in this field, not just in Indiana and the Midwest, but across the country."

The team used Glenn Black Lab equipment, including a 72-probe Syscal Electrical Resistivity profiler, a geophysical instrument used to map subsurface soil variations. The team also used a GeoProbe hydraulic coring machine to collect small-diameter continuous solid-earth cores.

Monticello Research

G. William Monaghan, interim director of the Glenn Black Laboratory at Indiana University Bloomington, examines soil cores on the East Lawn of Monticello.

"The coring machine is particularly useful because it actually shows the properties and layers of the fills and natural sediments that make up the landscape created by Jefferson," Monaghan said. "In many cases, we could clearly see the ground surface that existed before Jefferson built Monticello, buried under several feet of the 'fill' that Jefferson brought in to shape the landscape."

During the project the thickness and characteristics of the historic fills that underlie the southern end of the East Lawn were documented. The IU research team determined that four to six feet of fill underlies the East Lawn. "This was a surprise because it is two to three times thicker and much more extensive than previously believed," Monaghan noted.

The Monticello Plantation Survey, to which IU's team has contributed, is part of a long-term effort to complete an inventory of the archaeological resources located on the 2,000-acre tract currently owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The 1,000-acre Monticello home farm has been the focus of survey fieldwork to date. By examining road traces, sediment deposits, and more, Monticello archaeologists are building a cumulative record of land use that reveals a more complete historical picture of Monticello than the documentary record left by Thomas Jefferson.

"The results of our research will be used by the Monticello archaeological and restoration staff to document the changes made by Jefferson to the Monticello landscape," Monaghan said. "Analysis of samples of the fill also may allow them to accurately reconstruct what the area looked like before Jefferson arrived."

In recent years the Glenn Black Laboratory and Monaghan have undertaken other Plantation Survey projects with Monticello archaeologists, including investigating questions about the types of vegetation that existed at Monticello prior to Jefferson's arrival, the timing of when he cleared the forests on Monticello Mountain, and what crops he grew. The Glenn Black Lab staff plans to continue working with Monticello archaeologists to document landscaping on the entire East Lawn as well as to address questions related to clay sources and manufacturing technologies for the bricks used in Jefferson's home.

The Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington. For more information on the Glenn Black Laboratory, visit