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Archaeological crew searches Charlottesville's Court Square for artifacts, graves and more

An archaeological crew is probing the former parking lot and future site of a new joint Charlottesville-Albemarle courthouse complex in downtown Charlottesville.

The crew has been charged with finding what, if anything, from the land’s past might be in the way of development. Among the possibilities is the grave of John Jouett Sr., the owner of the Revolutionary War-era Swan Tavern that once operated nearby and whose son made the midnight ride credited with saving Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionary leaders from capture and, possibly, execution.

“Oral history has it that he was buried out back somewhere, but it was never marked as far as we know,” said Nick Bon-Harper, senior archaeologist at Rivanna Archaeological Services, the company doing the digging near the corner of Park and High streets. “It’s a bit of a long shot given how much development has been around.”

The ongoing excavation comes after the asphalt that once covered the lot was removed in early January.

“In a city that’s growing by leaps and bounds, any opportunity we have to document what was here before is an opportunity we should take,” Bon-Harper told The Daily Progress on Monday, as a man operated a backhoe nearby to scrape away the top layer of dirt, what archaeologist’s call “overburden,” to reach the natural red clay underneath.

“Anything that we find dug into that [clay] is a cultural feature,” said Bon-Harper. “When he’s scraping back and hits one of those dark stains, we’ll flag it and come back.”

Bon-Harper said that documentary evidence shows that the former parking lot was never the site of any major structures. It served as a side yard for Jouett’s Swan Tavern. So any “dark stain” Bon-Harper and his three-man crew discover could be remnants of outbuildings, such as a privy or stable or smokehouse, buried in the red clay.

Or something less impressive.

“Some of it is root holes and rodent burrows,” Bon-Harper said. “But we get to clean them up and determine whether they’re significant or not.”

Bon-Harper said his team is particularly eager to uncover some history about the enslaved population which may have worked at Swan Tavern and was very likely bought and sold on Court Square. The square was a hub for human trafficking before the Civil War. A plaque marking the location of an auction block sits just next door to the former Swan Tavern in front of No. 0 Court Square.

Last Friday, Bon-Harper’s crew uncovered a low, curving stone wall while digging at the site.

“When we first hit it, we thought it might be a big round cistern or a huge well,” said Bon-Harper. “But it’s just a semi-circle, and the rock construction is very poor quality for a foundation. So it seems most likely it’s a garden feature or an improvised turnaround for carriages or cars. It could be as recent as the 20th century.”

The city and county purchased the two-thirds-of-an-acre lot at 350 Park St. where Bon-Harper and his crew are working about eight years ago in hopes of accommodating increasing legal caseloads while keeping the courts downtown.

Plans for the 58,850-square-foot joint court complex call for demolishing a 20th-century addition and a 1980s-era annex in the area, while preserving a 172-year-old building next door. That building, though originally commissioned as a town hall for Charlottesville, is perhaps more widely known as the former Levy Opera House, owned by the prominent Levy family that lived at Monticello after Jefferson’s death. After the opera house closed in 1912, the structure served a number of different functions for the local court systems.

Rockville, Maryland-based Grunley Construction has been named design consultant for the new court development with subcontractor bids currently being advertised, according to Albemarle senior project manager Walter Harris.

The new building will hold the general district courts of both Charlottesville and Albemarle, while the former opera house will hold the offices of the Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney.

As for what history an archaeologist could uncover near Swan Tavern, what is known is that the property began appearing in local records in the 1760s, was clearly associated with Jouett by 1773 and was still standing when John “Jack” Jouett Jr. made his famous ride.

Like a better known patriot from Boston named Paul Revere, the younger Jouett set out one evening after he heard the thundering hooves of approaching British forces.

It was June 3, 1781, and Jouett has just finished a meal at a tavern in Louisa called Cuckoo. Racing back to Charlottesville on Three-Notched Road, Jouett alerted then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson and legislators who were with him that the British were coming. Jefferson escaped the British forces, though his political rivals would later chastise him for fleeing.

By around 1832, the wooden Swan Tavern had been replaced by a brick building, operated today as a private social organization called the Redland Club.

Bon-Harper said that investigating the property’s side yard is crucial to understanding not only the Jouetts but also the greater Charlottesville area.

“It’s important, because it’s all that kind of small pieces in the jigsaw of the history of Charlottesville and the history of Albemarle,” said Bon-Harper. “Just being out to document stuff before it disappears forever is important.”

He said that he and his crew are prepared for anything – even if it’s nothing.

“Sometimes in some projects you conclude, ‘Well there wasn’t that much of significance,’ but until you look, you don’t know.”


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