Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

CW Foundation navigation

Looking to Buy Tickets & Gifts or Book a Vacation? Click Here

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

Some of Thomas Jefferson's Thoughts on Archaeology
excerpted from Notes on the State of Virginia

As an amateur archaeologist, Thomas Jefferson set the precedent for the aims and methods of modern archaeological science. His interest in and research of the area near his home in central Virginia mirrors our own fascination with the unknown. Today, Americans are drawn to unfamiliar places; to buildings we have yet to see and to curiosities we have yet to imagine and explore. Jefferson was no exception. In the following excerpt from his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), he discusses an Indian mound near his home at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson"I know of no such thing existing as an Indian monument; for I would not honour with that name arrow points, stone hatchets, stone pipes, and half-shapen images. Of labour on the large scale, I think there is no remain. . . unless it be the barrows of which many are to be found all over this country. They are repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all: but on what particular occasion constructed, was matter of doubt. Some have thought they covered the bones of those who had fallen in battles fought on the spot of interment. Some ascribed them to the custom, said to prevail among the Indians, of collecting, at certain periods, the bones of all their dead, wheresoever deposited at the time of death. Others again supposed them the general sepulchers for towns, conjectured to have been on these grounds; and this opinion was supported by the quality of the lands in which they are found (those constructed of earth being generally in the softest and most fertile meadow-grounds on river sides) and by a tradition, said to be handed down from the Aboriginal Indians, that, when another died a narrow passage was dug to the first, the second reclined against him, and the cover of earth . . . replaced and so on. There [is] one of these in my neighbourhood. . . .

"But on whatever occasion they may have been made, they are of considerable notoriety among the Indians; for, a party [of Indians] passing, about thirty years ago, through the part of the country where the barrow is, went through the woods and directly to it without any instructions or inquiry and having staid about it sometime, returned with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road, which they had left about half a dozen miles to pay this visit, and pursued their journey. There is another barrow, much resembling this in the low grounds of the South branch of the Shenandoah . . . and another on a hill in the Blue Ridge of mountains, a few miles North of Wood's gap, which is made up of small stones thrown together. This has been opened and found to contain human bones, as the others do. There are also many others in other parts of the country. "

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), ed. William Peden (NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), pp. 97-100.