Archaeology at the Stable Quarter
The archaeologists have been hard at work excavating one of the Montpelier slave quarters. After a month-long field school and three expedition programs, we have a lot to show! The Stable Quarter is located between the South Yard (quarters for house slaves) and the Montpelier Visitor Center. We believe the slaves who call this site home worked in either the Madisons’ Stable (recently uncovered this summer) or the adjacent formal garden.
Montpelier archaeologists and James Madison University Field School students originally discovered this slave quarter back in 1992. We returned to the site this past spring to define its exact size and location. Then at the end of June, we began to excavate the site. What we have found so far has blown us away!
We began our first task: to relocate all the old excavation units placed at the site in the 1990s. This was no easy task. Twenty years obscured the units’ exact location. It became a dig within a dig! We finally located the units and began to decipher some of the features the previous archaeologists had located– especially the pit features that were full of hearth ash that mystified the archaeologists back in the 1990s. A wonderful brick feature just outside of the old 1990s units put these features in perspective.
We also located an incredible find of an area of brick pavement that measures 9 feet by 4 feet. This brick pad turns out to be the hearth for the slave quarter based on the brick and stone having evidence for burning and the fire crazing of the brick. Given that the hearth is at grade, the quarter likely had a clay floor, not a wooden floor set on joists (as found in the south yard–quarters for field slaves).
The hearth also highlighted another notably absent feature of the quarter which is no evidence for a brick or stone chimney base such as found in the South Yard. This absence of a masonry base suggests this structure had a stick and mud chimney–a common chimney for 18th and early 19th century slave quarters. The design for a stick and mud chimney is much as it sounds–sticks stacked to make the flue and then plenty of clay used to line the interior to reduce the risk of fire. Such chimneys were typically associated with log structures–and the absence of any piers or foundations for our structure suggests it was built of log with the base log set right on the ground.
All of these structural features (stick and mud chimney and log structure) needed lots of clay to create–and this brought us back to the pit features found by archaeologists back in the 1990s. We have a hunch that these pits began life as borrow pits or pits used to obtain clay for daubing the log structure and lining the wood chimney. After these pits were used for their clay, they became trash pits where the ash from the hearth was deposited. What is wonderful about the hearth ash is it is loaded with the remains of slave households food remains–animal bone, charred seeds, and lots of ceramics! This provides archaeologists with a literal treasure trove of information about slave diet and insight into their daily life. In addition to the food remains, we are also finding burnt clay in the ash deposits which support the idea of a clay-lined chimney (the fire from the hearth would bake the clay and then rain storms would wash loosened clay into the hearth).
We still have much to discover at the Stable Quarter site and will be continuing our excavations into October. We have found many more features (similar to the borrow pits) that await excavation. In addition, all the artifacts are being washed and examined at the lab and we are just beginning to assess the finds from the borrow pits. These finds have much to reveal about the sequence of events for the construction and use of the site–so stay tuned!
More importantly, we still have slots available for our week-long expedition programs in October–so please sign up for an experience of a life-time excavating at this exciting and important site!