Earlier this month, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed its investigations in the North Yard of the mansion. We spent the last three months looking for traces of the Madison-era fenceline as it approaches the Temple and planting holes for the Pine Allee. Our team succeeded in both accounts and made many more interesting discoveries along the way.

Planting holes for the Pine Allee

One of the more exciting finds was determining that there were a total of 20 trees that form two lines that converged as they got closer to the temple. This arrangement gave a false or forced perspective when viewing the temple from the Portico.  The evidence for the location of these trees took two forms.  In areas closer to the temple, the most obvious evidence was the tree hole itself. Underlying the temple is an icehouse. When excavated in the 1810s, the deep clay for this feature was spread atop Madison's father's blacksmith shop that was in operation up until 1801. The blue colored clay from this fill was then cut through when slaves excavated the tree planting holes leaving an obvious signature for us to find.  In middle of the Allee, the planting holes were much more difficult to define, but in several cases, the Madison-era tree root holes were just below the sod and immediately identifiable and deeper surviving tap root (known as fatwood) still smelled of the pine resin (likely a reason for their survival)!  

In the end, we confirmed the physical evidence for 12 of the 20 pine trees in the Pine Allee.  As in other areas of the mansion grounds (and the property as a whole) the archaeological record for the early 19th century is remarkably intact and gives us unparalleled accuracy in regard to Mr. Madison's landscape design for his garden landscape around the mansion.  In the case of the Pine Allee, the lines of false perspective created by the pine trees is a classic baroque concept that harkens to the 18th century linear arrangement of landscape elements. The position of the trees in relationship to front of the mansion gave the individual approaching the mansion the illusion of being set within a forested environment--hence a picturesque perspective endemic of the new landscape schemes of the early Federal era.  At the same time, the line of trees blocked from view those service buildings seen as "not so dainty" (described by one early 19th century visitor to Montpelier) and allowed the house to be the center of attention from the front approach via the carriage road.  As such, Madison's landscape helped to define what would become a unique landscape school--the American Picturesque--a genre of landscape design that partook of the latest planting schemes from Europe, neoclassical geometry of the 18th century, and also used aesthetic elements to mask the peculiar labor circumstance of chattel slavery.  Understanding this larger layout of Mr. Madison's home is the goal of the archaeology department.

Fenceline leading to the Temple

Plantings were not the only early 19th century landscape elements we were searching for this fall.  We know from  period drawings that the elegant, swagged picket fence ran from the door-yard gate to just past the temple. Excavations revealed the postholes were there, buried for over 160 years, at an exact 7.5 foot interval from where we initially found them where our 2006-2007 explorations left off.  While the postholes closest to the duPont-era drive were quite difficult to locate (due to grade being altered when the 1840s driveway was installed), the post holes closest to the temple were quite easily identified. These postholes cut through two distinct layers. The first was fill from the icehouse pit (excavated by Madison's slaves in 1810) that was used to cover over the 18th century blacksmith shop. The second layer these posts cut through was a dense layer of slag and iron scraps from the blacksmith shop (we will write another blog focusing on the blacksmith shop next).  The regular spacing and strict alignment of these posts (less than three inches of deviation) suggest the care used for laying out the fence and the fact no gate existed for 100 yard run of fence from the dooryard gate to the temple.  It is likely that such a gate would require breaking the 7.5 foot interval. As such, the only entry into the front lawn of the Portico was the dooryard gate that we recently restored at the carriage turnaround directly in front of the mansion. Such tightly controlled access to the dooryard is typical of formal grounds of estates in both England and Virginia.  (note: the dooryard is the area between the front Portico and the green picket fence along the carriage road).

Looking to next season, we have plans to investigate the area between the Portico and the Boxwood Grotto. This area encompasses the well house and the low grassy area between the South Yard and the front fence. Period accounts recall this area being planted in silver aspens (a similarly quick-growing tree like the pine) and also the potential location for the dairy. Similar to the Temple area, there are also 18th century deposits in this area, so lots of potential exciting finds! If you are interested in joining us in these investigations, we have already set the schedule for the 2014 season's week-long expeditions. In the meantime, we will be cataloging the artifacts from our recently completed excavations of the field slave quarter and once finished, start cataloging the artifacts from this fall's excavation. Right after hunting season (ending January 6th) we will be heading into the woods to begin surveys of slave quarters through a grant funded by the National Geographic--more on these finds soon!

Matthew Reeves