As hundreds of guests explored the grounds at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest on July 4 for the 243rd anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Savhanna Long dug into a patch of soil just east of the plantation’s only surviving slave quarters.
Long, a rising fourth-year archaeology student at the University of Virginia, made a surprising discovery in the bright red clay: a pink dime-sized ceramic shard with a floral pattern.
“Pink is one of the more rare colors to see around here,” she said. “We usually find black, there’s a lot of blue or just like plain white with no decoration. So seeing something pink, hand-painted and with actual decoration, was kind of crazy. I was pretty excited.”
The ceramic item the tiny shard once belonged to may have been used by one of the plantation’s enslaved residents or perhaps one of the ostensibly free African American laborers who toiled on the fields after emancipation.
For Long, it was a reminder of the stories researchers at Poplar Forest are working to reveal.
“A lot of people’s history in America is written on those documents,” Long said, referencing the country’s founding texts and the day’s celebration. “A lot of people’s isn’t. It’s written here underneath the ground and we get to dig that up and piece that together.”
Long and about 10 other college students are spending their summer at Jefferson’s rustic summer retreat in Bedford County as part of Poplar Forest’s summer field school. The six-week program gives students a chance to take part in the plantation’s ongoing research, including archaeological digs.
The annual July 4th festivities at Poplar Forest, which drew more than 800 people, offered the students their largest stage yet to highlight their findings. On display were the shattered remains of glass medicine bottles, a piece from a storage vase and a rusted clothespin — all offering clues about the people who once lived on the property.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to show off what we’re doing and to interact with a large number of visitors who, in some cases, may have never learned about archaeology before,” said Eric Proebsting, the director of archaeology and landscapes at Poplar Forest.
Archaeologists now are centering their excavations on the areas around the plantation’s only surviving slave quarters, known as the south tenant house, Proebsting said. The two-story brick building is believed to have been erected well after Jefferson’s death in 1857 and used to house free black and white farm laborers after the Civil War. Researchers believe older slave quarters may have once stood at that site.
Just moments before Long pulled the pink shard from the ground, hundreds of people gathered on the south lawn, as state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, read the declaration aloud.
Standing at the home’s south porch, Newman called Jefferson’s words “poetry” and said the declaration “rocked the world for freedom.”
Rachel Unbehagen, of Lynchburg, brought her nearly 1-year-old daughter Paige and seven-year-old son Eli to take part in the celebration.
Though Unbehagen and her children have visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, July 4 marked the first time they’ve visited Poplar Forest.
“I homeschool,” she said, “so we try to do some things around the area and learn more about history, what happened and how people lived. I’m very thankful we have this so close to home.”
Jeff Nichols, the president and CEO for Poplar Forest, said the goal of the site’s 34th annual Independence Day celebration was a simple one: awareness.
“If they walk away knowing that Jefferson lived here, we’re good,” he said.