Archaeology of the Constitution Landscape

Blog
 

When it comes to archaeology, it’s never easy—every day your assumptions are challenged as you unearth each new piece of evidence, be it a small sherd of porcelain or a wall foundation. Of course, that is part of what draws people to the profession and volunteers to the Archaeology Expeditions and Archaeology Excursions. Each day tells a new story. If you had visited Montpelier earlier in the year, or read the previous post on the North West Yard, the archaeologists would have told you that they were looking for a midden (trash dump), tree planting holes for the Pine Allée, and the landscape wall that defined the edge of Madison, Sr.’s formal yard.

That was yesterday. Today, we have a different story.

Well, mostly a different story.

The Pine Allée

Early duPont records, both maps and photographs, indicate that by the beginning of the 20th century the pine trees of James Madison, Jr.’s Pine Allée were well over 100 years old and dead or dying. The duPonts replaced the trees closest to Mr. Madison’s Temple with atlas cedars, but those nearest the house were removed (their position was recorded on a 1908 map of the property). Archaeological investigations of both the North Kitchen and the Northwest Yard were, however, able to determine the position of several of these original trees, one of which was not identified in earlier photographs (see image, right). This last tree further confirms that while the Pine Allée is an aesthetic landscape feature to frame Mr. Madison’s Temple (a feature commented upon by visitors to the mansion in the 19th century) it was also used to screen from view the work areas of the detached North Kitchen.

James Madison’s Montpelier hopes to restore this important landscape feature in the near future as part of the continuing interpretation of the landscape and mansion to the retirement years of James and Dolley Madison. (Note: to learn more about the Pine Alley as it heads to the temple (2013 excavations) click here.

The Midden

Over the course of the excavations, thousands of artifacts were recovered-ceramics and glass, bone, brick and mortar, and personal artifacts such as keys for storage trunks, clothing buttons, and even the hammer from a musket.  Archaeologists had previously referred to this as “Senior’s Midden,” believing that it had been sealed by a rubble layer from the construction of the duplex addition and the portico in 1797. Dating the ceramics in the midden, combined with the overlying 1809 rubble deposits (see previous archaeology post), revealed that this trash was more likely deposited in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, suggesting that the trash was thrown away during the first retirement of James and Dolley Madison (1797-1801) and the period when Mr. Madison served as Secretary of State under President Jefferson (1801-1808).

The Structure

We come at last to the main difference in the story that Montpelier archaeologists have been interpreting to the public during late summer and fall. Previously, we had suggested that the brick foundation at the site was the northern-most landscape wall that demarcated the edge of Madison, Sr.’s Georgian-style formal yard (and would have been twinned with one 200′ to the south). The trash midden, in this scenario, represented domestic slaves walking to the wall (or around) and dumping trash outside of the formal yard.

In excavating the presumed-landscape wall, archaeologists noted a number of unusual features:

  • Some form of rectilinear foundation was present inside the landscape wall (we were initially hopeful that this represented a privy!);
  • The landscape wall made two right-angle turns, suggesting that it was a structure; and
  • The wall was mortared on the “outside,” but lacked any such mortar on the “inside” (side closest to the mansion). On a visit to the site two weeks ago, Architect Mark Wenger pointed out that a landscape wall would have been mortared on both sides to create a stable wall. Mortar on one side only would indicate that, for stability, the wall would have to be under compressive force, such as from a timber-framed structure.

These observations have therefore revealed a hitherto unknown structure in the side yard of the 18th-century landscape of Madison, Sr. The structure, approximately 16′x40′, seems to contain a number of separate rooms as represented by the foundation that we had hoped was an outhouse. Just what this structure is remains a mystery. The 200′ interval previously mentioned for laying out the 18th-century Georgian landscape remains, stretching from the inside wall of the detached South Kitchen to the outside wall of this new structure.  Intriguingly, if one takes this 200′ interval, the newly identified structure is on the “inside,” whereas the detached South Kitchen is on the “outside.”  Only further excavation may shed some light upon what this might mean. Perhaps the structure represents a higher status, or more important, outbuilding?  Or perhaps there are more structures laying unearthed in the Northwest Yard?  Does the originally-interpreted southern landscape wall of 1797 actually represent a twin structure, with the 18th-century house bounded not by landscape walls but by flanking buildings?  Only more archaeology in the front lawn and side yards will answer these questions.  What is exciting about the discovery of these features is they reveal that much of the 18th century landscape lies preserved beneath the fill from the 1808-1812 renovation and landscaping episodes of the mansion.

As exciting as the yet-unearthed evidence is, a point raised by Mark Wenger—this structure, whatever it might be, was present on the landscape when Madison, Jr. was researching the governments of the world and writing down the principles that would ultimately become the framework of the U.S. Constitution. What principle might he have been debating in his mind as, standing on front porch (pre-Portico) in the Spring of 1787, his eyes glanced to the north and, beyond this structure, could see the African American slaves laboring at his father’s prosperous smithy?

The position of trees of the Pine Allée as determined through the archaeological record

The position of trees of the Pine Allée as determined through the archaeological record.

A small sample of artifacts recovered from the North West Yard Midden (click image for more information).

A small sample of artifacts recovered from the North West Yard Midden.

Schematic of newly identified structure in the North West Yard

Schematic of newly identified structure in the North West Yard.

Digital aerial view of the 18th-century landscape showing the approximately position of the newly identified structure. (Original image courtesy of IATH, University of Virginia.)

Digital aerial view of the 18th-century landscape showing the approximately position of the newly identified structure. (Original image courtesy of IATH, University of Virginia.)

 

Mark A. Trickett