In Virginia, Unearthing Plantation Life

After 25 years of digs at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, archeologist Jack Gary has organized a book that makes all the findings there accessible – and understandable – to all.

“Jefferson’s Poplar Forest – Unearthing a Virginia Plantation” covers the landscape restoration at the third president’s retreat near Lynchburg.  It not only takes a thorough look at Jefferson’s life there, but just as carefully examines the way that his slaves existed too.

Gary pulled together all that research into 10 different chapters by eight different authors.  His own chapter looks at the ceramic vessels that Jefferson acquired, selected for their imagery that related to his tastes in architecture and landscape.  “It’s neoclassical, with an English garden style,” he says.

Jefferson seemed to be seeking out ceramics that would take his chosen exterior landscape inside to the cube-shaped dining room of his eight-sided home.  “The guy did everything with a purpose, down to his dinnerware,” Gary says.  “There’s the rotunda from the Radcliffe Library at Oxford, and landscapes with clumps of trees that he implemented here – it’s the imagery of what he liked.”

The impetus behind the book is to present information that most people haven’t been able to access over the years.  Well researched and footnoted, it’s aimed at the lay person as well as at academics.

Gary, who joined the Poplar Forest staff in 2006, edited the book with Barbara Heath, his predecessor there.  Heath co-authored the first chapter of the book, and contributed two more.  The author of “Hidden Lives: The Archeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” she’s now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

The book’s  editors and authors are scheduled to give a series of four talks about the book on Saturday, June 30.  Among sessions is one by Heath and archeologist Lori Lee on the lives of the African Americans who comprised the year-round community of Poplar Forest.

The talks begin at 2 PM Saturday, and will be followed by a book signing.

For more information, go to or call the Poplar Forest Museum Shop at (434)534-8120.

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