Uncovered cistern gives clues of early Lawn life
By Matt Kelly
|Top: A Florida Water bottle and a pavilion decoration were discovered in the cistern but there was little else of interest. The cistern was apparently filled all at once, sometime after 1887, which limits the number of artifacts.
Bottom: Steve Thompson of Rivanna Archaeological Services LLC and Mark Stephen Kutney (right), an architectural conservator with the University Architects Office, examine the cistern found near Pavilion III. The underground brick tank would have been used to collect rainwater from three of the Lawn buildings.
It’s surprising the things people can learn from a hole in the ground.
Workers replacing Central Grounds water pipes last fall uncovered a brick hole, 12 feet by 8 feet, under an asphalt parking lot at the end of Poe Alley, in the courtyard behind Pavilion III.
The find was identified as an underground cistern from the 19th century. After work to reroute the new pipes, installed as part of the Central Grounds Domestic Water Line Replacement Project, was completed, the cistern was excavated and examined this month and last.
“It is not clear if this is an original Jefferson piece,” said Brian E. Hogg, senior historic planner in the University architect’s office. “It did appear on a map in the late 1850s.”
That map, drawn in 1858 by William A. Pratt, University architect and the first superintendent of buildings and grounds, details the Pavilion III cistern, but another map, produced by printer Peter Maverick in 1822 to promote the University, indicates other cisterns on the Lawn, but not one at Pavilion III.
“It was published before the University was finished, and it is not 100 percent accurate,” Hogg said of the Maverick map.
Any excavation project within the Academical Village has to have an on-site archaeologist to monitor the digging in case artifacts are unearthed, said Joseph D. “Jody” Lahendro, historic preservation project manager with Facilities Management.
“For the waterline project, Facilities Planning and Construction required the constant archaeological monitoring of all trench excavations by the contractor,” he said. “As a result … as soon as the contractor exposed the cistern brickwork the on-site archaeologist stopped work to investigate the feature.”
Archaeologist Ben Ford, who has extensive experience with archaeological sites at the University, was called in immediately to investigate.
The cistern would have been used until around the 1890s, collecting water from two or three adjacent buildings, Ford said. After the cistern was no longer being used, it was filled in all at once with a sandy soil mixture with the top part of the cistern toppled into it, he explained. Units that have been filled over long periods of time tend to collect trash, but Ford said this cistern was nearly devoid of artifacts. He said there was a small bottle labeled Florida Water, made by Lazell, Dalley & Co., a chemist and perfumery in business between 1887 and 1890.
“Because we found the bottle in the fill soils within the cistern, we can safely say that the cistern was not filled until 1887-1890 or sometime thereafter,” Ford said. “This does not mean that the cistern was used up through 1890 but that the earliest it could have been filled was this date.”
This coincides with the University securing a reliable water source from the city of Charlottesville in the early 1890s.The latest it could have been filled in was in the 1920s when the area was paved with brick and concrete.
An acanthus leaf, an architectural decoration on Pavilion III, was also found in the cistern. Ford said the leaves, which were stamped out of a flat metal such as lead or an alloy, were nailed under the eaves as decorations. They were a feature in Roman and Greek architecture, which had a strong influence on Jefferson’s designs, Ford said.
The brick cistern was lined with a very hard hydraulic mortar to keep ground water out while retaining rainwater, a task it still performs today. The cistern contained standing water, which had likely entered through a small rupture in its side, in the lower four feet of the cistern.
The top course of bricks had been removed, and Lahendro believes the original cistern extended above ground. Hogg said because there was not an intact top, it is hard to determine if the water was pumped out of the cistern or if users had to remove it with a bucket. Ford said researchers may never know how the top of the cistern looked.
The cistern, cylindrical in shape, was dug into bedrock because it had to be close to the buildings it serviced. Archaeologists found small, underground brick tunnels, also lined with hydraulic mortar, to carry water from roof downspouts to the cistern.
When the Academical Village was designed, water was to be supplied from springs and a dammed holding pond on Observatory Hill, which Jefferson purchased for that purpose. The water was carried to Grounds via wooden pipe with iron couplings, which presented a variety of problems with supply and pressure. The cisterns would have been part of Jefferson’s plan for water-collecting at the University Grounds. In Jefferson’s time, Ford said, cisterns were also referred to as wells. Ford did not know if the water was used for drinking or bathing.
The Poe Alley cistern was mapped and then filled in again. Ford is writing a report on his findings, which will be turned in to the University architect’s office, along with Ford’s recommendations about reserving the site. Another cistern also was found, but not excavated, under a room on the East Range.