You all might have noticed that the tents have popped back up at the quarter for field slaves--which means spring is finally here! While this site is very visible, we have been other areas on the property since January that are not so easy to find. We spent January through March surveying Chicken Mountain (a wooded parcel on the east side of the property) and had a very productive season! We gridded a 150-acre portion of the mountain closest to Chicken Mountain Road with a 65’ (20m) grid and used metal detectors to locate historic artifacts (nails, buttons, coins, etc). Click here to read more!
In 1961, a 33-year-old real-estate developer surveyed an expanse of land adjacent to Washington, DC, languishing in neglect and thriving only in its junkyards and cheap motels. I imagine this place being where criminologists came up with broken windows theory. But Robert H. Smith looked at this area and he did not see failure—he saw opportunity.
When Dolley Madison’s good friend, the author Margaret Bayard Smith, visited Montpelier in 1809, Dolley asked Margaret why she hadn’t brought her children to visit, too. Margaret said she feared inconveniencing the Madisons, to which Dolley responded with a laugh, “I should not have known they were here, among all the rest, for at this moment we have only three and twenty in the house.”
As with many famous folks, the internet abounds with questionable folklore, spurious quotes, and outright falsities concerning James and Dolley Madison. It has long been repeated that James Madison, notoriously diminutive in stature, stood 5’4”. However, in documentary records...
In Tolkien's famous trilogy, Lord of the Rings, the tormented Bilbo Baggins finds a form of catharsis in the transcription of the tale of his adventures in his book, "There and Back Again." When sitting down to write this 'blog post, the title of that book just wouldn't leave my mind. I realized that in its own way, the archaeological interpretations of the Tobacco Barn Quarter and have been "There and Back Again," too. Perhaps not quite the epic tale of Bilbo, and certainly involved less giant spiders (though some of our field school students and volunteers would disagree with that!), the story presented by archaeological and documentary research is no less interesting in the insights they give into the daily lives of the Montpelier's enslaved field laborers, and the choices that Madison makes as farmer and natural scientist to ensure the economic success of Montpelier.
As with all stories, we start somewhere near the beginning...
We have all heard the phrase, so how does it apply to archaeology? While often used in derogatory fashion, in reference to the archaeological investigations of the "Tobacco Barn Quarter" it really refers to the comprehensive survey and excavation techniques employed to explore the homes of Madison's enslaved field laborers.
Although the Montpelier Archaeology Department has recently back-filled the two sites that were the focus of the research this year, the work continues—we're still processing samples and cataloging finds both small and large in the archaeology laboratory. If you get the time don't hesitate to walk down the hill from the mansion and come and visit. We're open every day that Montpelier is open, whether you just want to visit or you want to get involved by volunteering.
The James Madison Landmark Forest received recognition from the Old-Growth Forest Network. This organization, founded by Dr. Joan Maloof, seeks to identify one forest in each county of the United States that exemplifies a publically accessible, mature, native forest. Montpelier’s old-growth forest, representing Orange County, is #7 in the Network which includes forests in Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii.
Continuing my professional journey at this historic place, the home of James Madison, is a tremendous honor. Madison restored himself on these lands before returning to the Herculean task of creating a new nation. I, too, feel restored in returning home to Virginia, to the rolling Piedmont hills, and to the red earth of Orange County.