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As archaeological dig ends, gag order keeps Swan Tavern findings under wraps

As construction negotiations for a new $37 million courthouse building dragged on during the winter, archaeologists digging up the yard of the former Swan Tavern in downtown Charlottesville got extra time to excavate as volunteers. But their permission to dig ends Monday, about a month after an Albemarle County-imposed gag order prevented the archaeologists from speaking with reporters.

“What are they afraid of?” asked historian Rick Britton. “The gag order is a shame because anything that they would find would benefit all of us.”

In an email, Albemarle County spokeswoman Abbey Stumpf described the gag order as “standard practice for media inquiries, which is to go through the Communications and Public Engagement office.”

Until the gag, the archaeologists who pushed past their contract were regaling reporters with tales of tens of thousands of bits of pottery, pipes and other Revolutionary-era finds.

“It’s incredible to think that it’s there,” Tom Chapman, director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, told The Daily Progress. “You peel off a few inches of asphalt, and all of a sudden — boom — you’re back in the 18th century.”

Upon hearing that the excavations would end Monday, Chapman hurriedly organized three public tours. Each tour took place last week, and each, he said, booked up within hours.

What was being excavated was the back and side yard of the former Swan Tavern, which was built circa 1773.

“The Swan Tavern represents very early Charlottesville history,” Chapman said. “Charlottesville was created to be the county seat, but it was usually known more for the tavern than the court house.”

Just as the Swan Tavern may hold as much history as the courthouse, there’s more to the tavern than its owner, John Jouett Sr. and his more famous son, John “Jack” Jouett Jr., who made a midnight ride to warn of a British invasion in 1781.

“When you say John Jouett and Jack Jouett did this and that at the tavern, well they also owned slaves,” said Chapman. “So there’s important information that’s not in the written records that archaeology helps to uncover.”

One thing archaeologists had hoped to uncover was the grave of John Jouett Sr., who was said to have been buried somewhere under his tavern green. But Stumpf said that no graves have been found and probably won’t be found under the to-be-demolished annex to the adjacent structure — built as the Levy Opera House — because the circa-1980 excavation for that building’s construction would have already revealed them.

Stumpf noted that the county has paid Rivanna Archeological Services $175,000, and she confirmed that the company offered to continue to conduct its survey on a voluntary basis.

Meanwhile, Charlottesville’s preservation planner Jeff Werner has reported that he has filed paperwork with the state Department of Historic Resources to get a grant to analyze some of the thousands of bits of bone, pipes, ceramics and other relics that the archeologists uncovered.

“An in-depth analysis,” Werner wrote in his grant application, “would inform about the general diet, food preferences, food preparation, butchering practices, etc. providing insight into the type of work performed by free and enslaved labor, as well as tavern fare and cultural practices.”

“Hell, yeah,” Colonial cooking historian Leni Sorensen told The Daily Progress. “Of course it’s important on lots of different levels.”

Sorensen, who has helped Monticello curate its displays of culinary history, said that the Swan Tavern was an elite gathering place in a provincial county.

“This has been a place that Jefferson and his father and all those names would have hung out and done business,” said Sorensen. “They would come and meet at the tavern, and they would all have eaten while they were there.”

The flip side of such an elite watering hole, Sorensen said, is who was doing the work.

“Certainly, the majority of the cooks and the hostlers, the guys who took care of the horses, would have been enslaved,” she said.

Sorensen voiced hope for an extensive dig and an extensive analysis, and she expressed enthusiasm upon learning that the dig appeared to have found the tavern’s stables and its midden, or waste heap.

“If they’ve got a midden they can get an idea of poultry versus wild game versus pork and maybe even oysters,” said the food historian. “I would love to know more about the midden and what kind of food remains they’re finding.”

Meanwhile, Rockville, Maryland-based Grunley Construction has been named design consultant, and the firm filed its building permit in March for the new joint city-county court building for the site. The construction is sized at 58,850 square feet, and Grunley’s contracted maximum price is roughly $31 million, according to Stumpf.

She said the total cost of the project is $36.8 million, a figure that includes both future furnishing, moving and outfitting costs as well as already-spent past costs such as design and consulting. The city reports having already paid its share: $6.9 million.

“We expect construction to begin early this summer, starting with the demolition of the non-historic addition of the Levy building,” Stumpf said in an email.

Werner was so encouraged by the volume of artifacts hauled out of the tavern site that he reported having filed for a second grant, this one to examine the site of the McKee Row. That was a block of houses and business confiscated from their predominantly Black owners in the early 20th century to rid Court Square of alleged blight and create a park for a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

“Given the results at Swan Tavern/Levy site, it got me thinking there might be remnants of the old structures at McKee Block,” Werner said in an email.

Werner said that ground-penetrating radar may help determine if artifacts exist under what is now known as Court Square Park. The Jackson statue was removed in 2021.


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