Jefferson's Mound is a manmade formation consisting of raised earth and stones. Such mounds occur throughout the world; in Europe, especially, they are called tumuli, barrows, or kurgans. According to Jefferson, the Rivanna River mound was, in 1784, spheroidal in shape (an imperfectly round sphere, in other words) with a diameter at the base of forty feet. It was seven-and-a-half-feet tall, although Jefferson guessed that in the previous twelve years it had been reduced by plowing from about twelve feet. Around the base of the mound was a five-feet-wide and five-feet-deep ditch likely created by the removal of earth to build up the mound.
Jefferson went on to describe competing hypotheses concerning these mounds' function. They may have been battleground cemeteries, for instance, or burial grounds serving local or regional communities. "There being one of these [mounds] in my neighbourhood," he wrote, "I wished to satisfy myself whether any and which of these opinions were just."
Jefferson began his work by superficially digging in several areas of the mound. In each of these tests, he encountered bones from six inches to three feet below the surface, writing that they were arranged in "utmost confusion," or as if emptied from a basket and then covered with earth. Modern archaeologists describe this as a bundle secondary burial feature, meaning that Jefferson likely saw the remains of multiple individuals who were reburied from somewhere else. In fact, Jefferson estimated that the mound contained the remains of at least a thousand people. That number is large compared with other burial mounds in North America, but modern studies of similar mounds nearby support the number as reasonable. Jefferson also distinguished between the skulls of adults, children, and infants.
After these initial tests, Jefferson began his more-systematic fieldwork. Although he used the first-person in his writing about the dig, the scale of the excavation suggests that others were involved, presumably slaves from his Monticello plantation. With their help, then, a trench was dug through the mound's center "wide enough," Jefferson wrote, "for a man to walk through and examine its sides." This approach allowed Jefferson to inspect the mound for layers, or strata, a technique that would not enter the archaeological literature until Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1820). The various strata each contained bones covered by dirt, with the bones nearest the surface being the least decayed. Retrospectively, this has suggested that these remains were not as old, although Jefferson did not specifically draw that conclusion.
Over the years, the mound deflated. The site, broadly determined, is on private land with its exact location unknown. In 1911, David I. Bushnell Jr. of the Smithsonian Institution searched for the mound but did not find it. In 2000, the possibility of development near the town site associated with the mound's probable location prompted a blessing ceremony conducted by the Monacan Indian Nation of Amherst County.
Jefferson concluded his report by noting that the entire complex of thirteen mounds was of "considerable notoriety" to local Indians who, he noted, had conducted a ceremony at the Rivanna River mound sometime about 1754. Although they no longer lived near the mound, Jefferson observed that they knew precisely how to find their way through the woods and directly to the mound. This connection of the mound to the eighteenth-century tribes, made in passing, was significant because it provided some evidence contrary to the "Lost Race" theory.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Hantman, J. Jefferson's Mound Archaeological Site. (2016, November 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_s_Mound_Archaeological_Site.
- MLA Citation:
Hantman, Jeffrey. "Jefferson's Mound Archaeological Site." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 22 Nov. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 7, 2011 | Last modified: November 22, 2016
Contributed by Jeffrey Hantman, associate professor and director of the Archaeology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Virginia. He has conducted archaeological research in New York, Arizona, and, over the last two decades, the greater Chesapeake region of the Middle Atlantic region. He is co-editor of Across the Continent: Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and the Making of America (2005).