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Archaeologists dig Swan Tavern bounty

The archaeologists working the former yard of the Swan Tavern, an 18th century watering hole by Court Square that has long since been demolished, were worried that a 20th-century parking lot might have erased history.

Instead, they have now removed somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 pieces of ceramics, according to Nick Bon-Harper, the senior archaeologist working the site.

“The amount of material coming out here is just remarkable,” Bon-Harper told The Daily Progress.

Bon-Harper exalted not just over the hundreds of beads, pins, and ceramics but also several smoking pipes found on the site, one of them made of soapstone and bearing a head that seemed to mix the features of man and beast.

Additional findings include scores of animal bones, possibly scraps from food service at a dwelling or from the tavern itself. Such a waste pile is called a midden, and it can reveal much about the lives of those whose discards are found.

This midden may be residential or may have belonged to the Swan Tavern, one of the first structures in downtown Charlottesville, constructed around 1773. It’s a place where legislators met during the American Revolution, and some of the staff may have been enslaved.

The tavern was built along Three Notch’d Road by John Jouett Sr. He was the father John “Jack” Jouett Jr., who famously spied British cavalry marching to Charlottesville during the Revolutionary War and made a nighttime equestrian dash on a brambly shortcut from another tavern in Louisa. His action is credited with saving Virginia’s leadership, including then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson, from British capture.

With so much history in the balance, Bon-Harper wants more time to excavate. He said that he hasn’t yet received any official promise to delay the construction of a mammoth new building to house the general district courts of both Albemarle County and Charlottesville. However, a reporter’s requests for price information from the lead developer, the county, continue to get deferred due to contractor price negotiations, according to county spokesperson Abbey Stumpf.

The delays coincide with the fact that the county has yet to submit paperwork for demolition and building permits.

“That’s allowed Ben’s crew to keep digging, at least through next week,” the city’s preservation planner, Jeff Werner, said in an email to the Progress.

The projected total cost of the new courts building is about $35.9 million, according to Stumpf. She cautioned that the amount may adjust due to the ongoing negotiations with the contractor, Grunley Construction.

Earlier this week, as archaeologists with Rivanna Archaeology Susan Palazzo and Craig Kelley scraped at the dirt in one pit near High Street, Kelley was beaming.

“These are the biggest pieces I’ve ever found,” he said, “and I’ve been doing this fifteen years.”


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