Jefferson Archaeology

Thomas Jefferson and Archaeology: Of Mounds and Mastodons

In 1780, only a year away from the ostensible end of the American Revolution after a combined Patriot-French victory at the Battle of Yorktown, the French delegate to Philadelphia, François de Barbé-Marbois, sent each of the 13 colonies a set of questions.1 The topic of Barbé-Marbois’ questionnaire ranged from details on the colonies’ rivers, Euro-American populations, natural history, and ‘Aborigines.’2 Thomas Jefferson was one of the few people in America who took this request by their allies seriously. He took it so seriously, in fact, it turned into his Notes on the State of Virginia. A philosophe at heart, Jefferson used the opportunity presented by the French delegate to expound on a wide array of topics – including the archaeological dig he undertook as part of his preparations for writing Notes. Since that famous dig in 1784, Jefferson and archaeology have become inextricably linked. 

Thomas Jefferson and Archaeology

In order to give Barbé-Marbois the best “description of the Indians established in the State before the European Settlement and of those who are still remaining” he could, Jefferson decided to dissect a burial mound, or “barrow” as he called them.3

When Jefferson excavated the barrow, which, he noted, sat somewhere in his “neighbourhood,” he used archaeological techniques as yet unthought of by European intellectuals. To start, Jefferson decided to first dig “superficially in several parts” of the barrow. Going down between six inches to three feet, Jefferson found bones “lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by earth.”4

As Jefferson continued the dig, he went strata by strata, noting what he found in each layer of the mound. In Notes, he described how he “proceeded… to make a perpendicular cut though the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure.”5 Wide enough for a man to walk through and “examine its sides,” this trench dug into the barrow revealed something rather interesting: distinct layers. “At the bottom, that is, on the level of the circumjacent plain,” Jefferson wrote in Notes, “I found bones; above these a few stones…; then a large interval of earth, then a stratum of bones, and so on.”6

The act of defining strata in an archaeological excavation may just have been the most important outcome of Jefferson’s excavation. Predating the modern study of archaeology by about a century, Jefferson’s dig differed from any other yet undertaken.7 While people have always loved to dig up old stuff, no one had ever inserted a method into their madness. 

Was There Another Layer Here?

Jefferson had long been fascinated with the barrow he excavated. Describing the barrow’s importance to the Native Nations of Virginia, Jefferson recounted how a traveling group of Native Americans “about thirty years ago, through the part of the country where this barrow is, went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, 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.”8

Thus, it seems Jefferson had a lifelong interest in the Native Nations of Virginia, if not the Americas in general. While much of Jefferson’s interest in the cultures, languages, and histories of the many Native North American Nations was most likely born from his rather scientific personality, he did have a political angle for his archaeological and ethnographic work. 

Buffon, Reynal, and the Stupidity of America(ns)

In the eighteenth-century, France claimed the mantle of scientific leader of the Western world; and in that land of the scientific 1%, a man by the name of Georges-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon garnered a reputation as Europe’s foremost naturalist.9 In his writings, Buffon asserted that environment predetermined “the colour, the figure and stature, and the dispositions of different people[s],” i.e., their physical and mental capabilities. Though Buffon asserted this as a positive for some, when he cast his eye to the New World, he argued that Native North Americans, all the way from the tippy-top of Canada down to Mexico were “all equally stupid, ignorant, unacquainted with the arts, and destitute of industry.”10

Though Buffon didn’t go into what the North American environmental conditions meant for the European colonists who had lived there for generations, other Enlightenment thinkers did. The Abbé de Reynal, most notably, argued that the American climate had made its colonists dim and slow witted, which accounted for their lack of scientists and artists.11

Today, we can call Buffon’s arguments what they were: clearly racist bullshit designed to justify the overseas empires of European kingdoms, specifically the French. But, to an American philosophe like Jefferson, these accusations undoubtedly sounded more like a personal attack on his intellect and those of his countrymen. We should, then, read large portions of his Notes on the State of Virginia as a rebuttal to the biggest names in European science of the day, who looked down their noses at the quaint colonies across the Atlantic.

Jefferson Takes the Barrows Beyond Archaeology

When Thomas Jefferson responded to Barbé-Marbois’s request for information on Native Americans, both contemporary and past, he did so with careful wording. Jefferson needed to balance the desire of white Americans to take Native American land, while also refuting claims from Europe that the American environment created batches of dullards.

This could explain why Jefferson began his section on the barrows by claiming that he knew “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 as respectable as would be a common ditch for the draining of lands: unless indeed it be the Barrows, of which many are to be found all over this country.”12

By claiming the barrows were not ‘monuments,’ Jefferson hoped to show that Native Americans lacked culture, which is why they appeared “stupid” and “ignorant” – it had nothing to do with the environment itself. Conversely, by admitting the barrows constituted ‘labour on the large scale,’ Jefferson wanted to prove that Native Americans possessed a germ of culture “in their minds which only wants cultivation,” demonstrating the promise of America.13

It’s also important to note that Jefferson’s interpretations of his excavations contradicted contemporary European thinking around North American burial mounds. To many Europeans, North American Nations were not civilized enough to produce these large works of earth and stone. So, clearly, some ancient people from the Old World, perhaps the Vikings, Chinese, Tartars, or even the Lost Tribes of Israel, had immigrated to the New World and built these mounds.14 While Jefferson had racist stuff swirling around his head while writing about the barrows, at least he could admit they were made by Native Americans. 

Thomas and the Mastodon

Around the same time that Jefferson dug and wrote on the barrows, he penned a section in Notes on a creature known as the ‘incognitum.’ A large elephantine animal that modern paleontologists have named the Mastodon, the incognitum became the source of much speculation across Europe and its colonies. 

People who knew Jefferson commented on his collection of Mastadon bones. In 1784, a year after the United States officially received independence, the president of Yale, Ezra Stiles, told his diary how, “Jefferson has seen many of the great Bones dug up on the Ohio. He has a thighbone Three Feet long and a Tooth weighing sixteen Pounds.15 From remains such as these, as well as the (unfortunately now lost) fossils he kept at Monticello and later the White House, Jefferson formulated his notions of a gigantic creature that had once roamed the great American continent, and perhaps still did out west beyond the reaches of the United States. 

“It is certain,” Jefferson proclaimed to the world in Notes on the State of Virginia, that this great creature “existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”15 Though Jefferson never fully understood just what the hell he was looking at (that is, an extinct creature from a different geologic era), he knew that it afforded him a battleground from which he could launch bombs against Buffon and his anti-American theories. 

Throwing Mammoth Shade

Clearly, the incognitum proved Buffon’s claim that, in the New World, “living nature is much less aggressive, much less strong” to be complete and utter Mastodon shit.17 (If you’re curious about that footnote, ‘Mastodon shit’ was an invention of my own prodigious eloquence). 

Jefferson went on to rebuke “the opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon” on four, well, counts. But, the introduction he gave to the subject really said it all: 

“It [the mastodon] should have sufficed to have rescued the earth it inhabited, and the atmosphere it breathed, from the imputation of impotence in the conception and nourishment of animal life on a large scale: to have stifled, in its birth, the opinion of a writer, the most learned too of all others in the science of animal history, that in the new world… nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other.”18

Now that’s how you throw shade!

To Jefferson, the Mastodon was more than a collection of fossils – it was a symbol for what America could be. Just as the incognitum had been “the largest of all terrestrial beings,” the United States would become the greatest nation the world had ever known.  

Want to learn more about Thomas Jefferson? Check out book recommendations from us and our friends at The Archive!

Sources on Thomas Jefferson and Archaeology

  1. “Jefferson’s Excavation of an Indian Burial Mound,”
  2.  Jeffrey Hantman, “Jefferson’s Mound Archaeological Site,”
  3. “Marbois’ Queries Concerning Viriginia [before 30 November 1780],”
  4. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia,
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Karl Lehmann-Hartleben, “Thomas Jefferson, Archaeologist,” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 47, no. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1943): 163.
  8. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
  9. David Andrew Nichols, “A Rejoinder to Jefferson’s ‘Notes on Virginia’: François Barbé de Marbois in Iroquoia, 1784,” New York History vol. 84, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 389-408.
  10. Buffon, Buffon’s Natural History,
  11. Nichols, “A Rejoinder to Jefferson’s ‘Notes on Virginia’,” 394.
  12. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
  13. Nichols, “A Rejoinder to Jefferson’s ‘Notes on Virginia’,” 395.
  14. Hantman, “Jefferson’s Mound Archaeological Site,”
  15. Keith Thomson, Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 51.
  16. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 45.
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid

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