It would seem that the history of archaeology spans back toward the very edges of civilization itself with the earliest recorded digs being those of Nabonidus, the last native King of Babylon (reigned 555-539BC). However, in assuming a more scientific focus, “the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology” (cited Renfrew and Bahn 2012:23) traditionally goes to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). During Jefferson’s time there was a great deal of speculation by the people regarding the hundreds of unexplained mounds east of the Mississippi and it is his work with one of these mounds that provides him with the credit of being ‘The Father of American Archaeology’.
Jefferson’s work, in perhaps any one of three respects, is frequently cited as being ahead of its time. First, and by no means least, was that he was simply one of the first people on the American continent to excavate at all. But secondly that, the excavations he performed were carried out with such precision and care that they provided him with the means to clearly observe and detail the stratigraphy of his trench. Although common practice today it should be noted that paying attention to the stratigraphy didn’t become common practice until about the 1930’s. Thirdly, and argumentatively most importantly, Jefferson was seeking to discover answers to questions that he had posed. Jefferson, according to Renfrew and Bahn (2012:23) “adopted what today we should call a scientific approach [or method], that is, he tested his ideas about the mounds against hard evidence – by excavating one of them”.
What I would like to draw attention to as being particularly noteworthy in this is his method and his documentation of the process. While writing his ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, completed in 1781, he penned that his approach in supervising the methodical and analytical excavation of a Native American burial mound, located on his land in Virginia, was to elected to remove a wedge from the mound, carefully removing artifacts intact, rather than adopting the commonly accepted excavation method, in which an individual or team of individuals commenced working from the top and digging down. Inside the mound he discovered in excess of a thousand skeletons in various locations of the stone, soil, and bones matrix. He proposed that it must have been a communal burial mound for generations of Piedmont Indians (Anderle, 2013), a notion that he then carried to other mounds in the area.
The fact that this mound was located on his own private land, for which the law of the day would have provided him with the right to excavate and keep all finds, meant that Jefferson wasn’t simply interested in gathering artifacts. What he desired was to learn and understand whatever he could about the people who inhabited this land, his land, before him. He pursued this through the only means at his disposal, through the things which they left behind with their burials.
In his desire to attain this, Jefferson’s archaeological dig was the first documented use the method of stratification, a fundamental principle of modern archaeological theory and practice, through which the way layers of earth and artifacts relate to one another are studied. Conceptually stratification is derived from the idea that all occurrences of sedimentation exist according to uniform principles. With subterranean archaeological finds, the contextual identification of each find, no matter how small, is a vital piece in the puzzle that enables the archaeologist to draw conclusions pertaining to both, the site, and the nature and date of its occupation. Jefferson did not callously dig down into the mound like a child in the hope of “finding something”; nor as a looter with the intent on making a profit, he carefully cut, and removed, a segment of the mound which enabled him to clearly examine the stratigraphy. “His sound approach – logical deduction from carefully excavated evidence, in many ways the basis of modern archaeology – was not taken up by his [contemporaries or his] immediate successors in North America” (Renfrew and Bahn 2012:23), who generally continued to destroy priceless archaeological material by blindly hacking at the deposited remains of ancient settlements. But when they did, the methodology employed by Jefferson during this excavation provided a standard for archaeological inquiry that would endure through the academic rigors of the following century.
Anderle, B. 2013, ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Bones’, Suite 101, [Online] Accessed: 20 June 2013
Jefferson, T. 1781, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, [Online] Accessed: 20 June 2013,
Renfrew, C & Bahn, P. 2012, ‘Archaeology: Theoies, Methods and Practice’,6th Edn. Thames & Hudson, London, UK.