Thomas Jefferson: The Father of American Archaeology

At a time when archaeology was entirely wrapped up in haphazard artifact collecting under the banner of antiquarianism, Thomas Jefferson blazed a trail that would contribute to the transformation of treasure hunting antiquarianism into the science of archaeology. Through his curiosity and subsequent research, Jefferson posited a hypothesis, applied methodical digging techniques, provided qualitative and quantitative data, and published his conclusions in spite of current historical climates. A century ahead of its time, Jefferson’s research provided a foundational block for future archaeological research methods as well as marked the beginning of understanding ancient Native American culture and histories at the risk of his own reputation.
As with any discipline, archaeology, too, was subject to the evolution of research and acquisition methods of its infancy. Prior to becoming its own field of study under the wide reaching umbrella of anthropology in the late 19th century with globally recognized and respected methods of recovery and field work it had fallen under the scope of antiquarianism. The 18th century brought with it a shift in individual focus from the heavens to humanism,[1]sparking interest in not only the academics of the era to investigate humanity’s ancient past, but the leisurely gentlemen of the time as well. Antiquarianism became a hobbyist’s profession in which he studied history and searched for the relics of the past to further his understanding of where his ancestors came from. Many of these individuals “were wealthy adventurers, explorers, and merchants.”[2] The methods at the time compare dimly to that of today, where, in most cases, a complete disregard for the cultures and countries in which artifacts were located and rightfully belonged were extracted to distant lands and installed in museums[3] or sold to private, wealthy collectors. This commonly occurred during war under the guise of protecting beautiful monuments by removing them from potentially targeted cities such as was evident in the Napoleonic Wars and the collection of “hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts.”[4] During this era, antiquarians collected artifacts without documenting where they came from, the environment they were rediscovered in, or any other observable facts before removing them. This was detrimental to the cultural and historic aspect of the artifact as it denied any context for it, leaving it disenfranchised from its origin. Private sales of collected artifacts has remained a practice into the current century,[5]although by now it truly is considered looting and tomb raiding. Today, the retrospective view of antiquarianism is gradually shifting from one less of condemnation of grave robbing opportunists to one of deeper understanding of the processes behind the birth of new scientific disciplines. The original narrative that antiquarians “were in essence amateurs and dilettantes”[6]now being seen as “one designed to stress the scientific credentials of the disciplines that grew out and away from antiquarianism,”[7]some of which include history, anthropology, and archaeology.[8]
During this age of arbitrary excavation, one particular amateur archaeologist stands out among the rest. Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third president of the United States, had an entirely different approach to antiquarianism; one of method and strategy, established documentation, and conclusive hypothesis. His notes and suppositions were recorded in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1787. This book was in answer to a survey posited by Francois Marbois, the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia in 1780.[9]Part of the survey requested information about the histories and populations of Native American tribes of the state of Virginia and Jefferson did not hesitate in his response. Instead, he dedicated an entire 20 page chapter to the relationships, histories, census, and composition of Virginian Native American peoples in addition to his description of what he concluded was a Native American burial mound located in the neighborhood of his home in Monticello.[10]His main goal of the excavation was to rediscover the cultural aspects of the burial mound, specifically on how it was built and for what purpose. Jefferson continued to outline the different mounds in the locality of his home and the speculation surrounding their development. “These are of different sizes, some of them constructed of earth, and some of loose stones.”[11] The mainstream supposition assumed that these mounds marked the locations of ancient town sites since they were most typically located in Jefferson’s modern time “in the softest and most fertile meadow-grounds on river sides.”[12]The theory of the development of the mounds in these ancients towns included the tradition of “the first person who died was placed erect, and earth put about him, so as to cover and support him…”[13]then, when another individual died, they stacked that corpse on top of the previous and built up the dirt around it, continuing onward until the mounds became the large structures that they were.[14]Unsatisfied with these assumptions and uneducated hypotheses, Jefferson set out to discover the true answer himself through calculated, thorough excavation.[15]
Jefferson’s findings had a profound impact on the future disciplines of anthropology and archaeology because he documented what he observed. At a time when searching for material value or treasure was at the forefront of most antiquarian’s minds, Jefferson was more interested in the discovery of the truth about what he was investigating. The knowledge borne from the excavation of the mounds was where the wealth was hidden for him and he donated that wealth to the rest of the world through the publication of his book. The last pages of the chapter described what the mounds looked like from the outside prior to excavation stating, “It was of a spheriodical [sic] form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude…”[16] He explains his methods of entry to the mound, “I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface.”[17]He discovered in these bones that they were not solely standing erect as once thought, but rather mixed in their configuration to include vertical, horizontal and “entangled.”[18]From this disarray of bones he posited that they were arbitrarily placed into the area as if they were “emptied promiscuously from a bag or blanket”[19]and then promptly covered by dirt. Jefferson describes the condition of the bones and their brittleness, the types of bones present as well as their sizes and color. “This bone was white, all the others of a sand color. The bones of infants being soft, they probably decay sooner, which might be the cause so few were found here.”[20] He excavated the mound further and documented the stratigraphy of the mound as well as the layers in which each artifact or ecofact was located, a shockingly modern scientific consideration developed by James Hutton, the Father of Modern Geology, in the same era the excavation was taking place.[21]Jefferson was able to conclude from this study of the strata that the mounds were developed by placing the first collection of bones of the multiple deceased on the main level of earth, then covering them first with stones followed by dirt, then repeating this process by depositing a second collection of bones and covering them with stones and earth, continuing on until the mound grew to the size it currently was.[22]
The discovery of children’s bones was a startlingly new development to the contrary of other uneducated guesses of the purpose of the mounds acting as a burial ground strictly for warriors.[23]His excavation quickly dispelled many of the common threads of belief within his colonial community, yet, he took it one step further to examine the myths of European and, even, Asian peoples landing in North America prior to its official occupation by European settlers in the late fifteenth century and beyond. Jefferson addresses these conjectures in his report to the French secretary, by recounting the history of possible accidental arrivals from European Nations. While the current society of the time believed that the burial mounds were the remnants of “Israelites, Phoenicians, or Vikings”[24]Jefferson stood strong in his conclusion that the mounds belonged to the native peoples of the area. “I know of no such thing existing as an Indian monument… that they were repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all: but on what particular occasion constructed, was a matter of doubt.”[25] Jefferson supports his theory that the local or original tribes to the area were the creators of the mounds by recounting a time in which he observed a traveling band of Native Americans approach the particular mound under excavation thirty years prior. The tribe “went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid [sic] about it some time [sic], with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road…”[26] He attributes the existence of the children’s bones for their mourning and makes note of other mounds in the area which had experienced similar interactions with native peoples. Through the analysis of the existing languages in Asia compared to current Native American tribes Jefferson further predicts that Native American populations were the descendants of ancient Asian peoples. This conclusion allowed Jefferson to extrapolate that since there are no recognizable similarities between the two modern languages between Asia and North America that the ancestors of current Native Americans could potentially have been similar to that of “the age of the earth.”[27]This cutting-edge idea of linguistic comparison was concluded with his final statement on the topic, “A greater number of those radical changes of language have taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia.”[28] The modern theories of how the Americas were originally populated offer some support for Jefferson’s remarkably well predicted hypotheses.
Jefferson’s approach to the burial mound was inspired by a respectful curiosity coupled with the determination to acquire the truth about its origin and creators. Through systematic excavation and unprecedented documentation, Jefferson laid the groundwork for American archaeology earning him one more field in which he was labeled a Founding Father. The idea that Native Americans were not only capable of monumental architecture, but also ancient occupants of North America was incendiary at the time when racism and the systematic assimilation and acculturation of native peoples was the dominant social perspective and mission. Jefferson’s conclusions would not truly find a serious audience until nearly 100 years later when ethnologist Cyrus Thomas came to the same understanding of the mounds and published thorough, more modernly scientific data on the subject.[29]


  1. “Archaeology.” National Geographic Society. October 09, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2019.
  2. Clark, Robert. “How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History.” National Geographic. May 13, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  3. Colavito, Jason. “Jefferson’s Excavation.” Jason Colavito. Accessed March 29, 2019.
  4. “James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology | AMNH.” American Museum of Natural History. Accessed April 19, 2019.
  5. Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Boston, MA: David Carlisle, 1801.
  6. Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Ancient History and the Antiquarian.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13, no. 3/4 (1950): 285-315. doi:10.2307/750215.
  7. “Jefferson’s Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound.” Monticello. Accessed April 18, 2019.
  8. Murray, Tim. “Rethinking Antiquarianism.” Accessed April 17, 2019.


[1] Arnaldo Momigliano. “Ancient History and the Antiquarian.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13, no. 3/4 (1950): 285-315. doi:10.2307/750215. 285.
[2] “Archaeology.” National Geographic Society. October 09, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2019.
[3] Ibid, 1
[4] Ibid, 1
[5] Robert Clark. “How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History.” National Geographic. May 13, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2019.
[6] Tim Murray. “Rethinking Antiquarianism.” Accessed April 17, 2019.
[7] Ibid, 1
[8] Ibid, 1
[9] “Jefferson’s Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound.” Monticello. Accessed April 18, 2019.
[10] Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. Boston, MA: David Carlisle, 1801.
[11] Ibid, 140
[12] Ibid, 141
[13] Ibid, 141
[14] Ibid, 141
[15] Ibid, 141
[16] Ibid, 141
[17] Ibid, 142
[18] Ibid, 142
[19] Ibid, 142
[20] Ibid, 143
[21] “James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology | AMNH.” American Museum of Natural History. Accessed April 19, 2019.
[22] Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. Boston, MA: David Carlisle, 1801. 144.
[23] Ibid, 140
[24] Jason Colavito. “Jefferson’s Excavation.” Jason Colavito. Accessed March 29, 2019.
[25] Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. Boston, MA: David Carlisle, 1801. 140.
[26] Ibid, 145
[27] Ibid, 147
[28] Ibid, 148
[29] Jason Colavito. “Jefferson’s Excavation.” Jason Colavito. Accessed March 29, 2019.

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Jaymee is the writing force and creative director behind the Beaux Cooper brand. She loves to collaborate with other writers and journalists across the genres. Jaymee lives under the beautiful foothills of the Front Range in Colorado with her cat, Ada, and partner.

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