Back at the Mansion: Searching for Madison's Dairy

After a long winter season with our Metal Detector Expedition members searching for sites on Chicken Mountain, the archaeology department is returning to the Mansion for the summer season. We have a number of objectives for the summer, mostly focused on understanding the southwest yard, hoping to fill in some gaps in our knowledge about the way the plantation landscape changed after James and Dolly returned from Washington. Our first objective, which we started this week, is to excavate an area we believe was the location of Madison's dairy, highlighted in green below.

The location of our excavation area marked in green in the southwest yard of the mansion.

What's a Dairy?

A dairy is one of the standard outbuildings on most large estates, used for the processing of milk and cheese. Because of this, it has a number of distinguishable features, each designed to keep the outbuilding clean and cool: milk is very sensitive to temperature and is easily contaminated, so these were vital features of any dairy. In Virginia, there is a consisten pattern of size: these buildings are often no larger then 16 x 16 feet. To maintain a cool temperature, they also are subterranean, often with a two to three foot step below ground. This would help to maintain a lower temperature. No windows were present, either, in order to keep out the sun. Any feature that could be added to a dairy to keep the temperature down were often included in their design, as noted extensively by this piece at Colonial Williamsburg. They likely had stone or brick foundations and floors, all designed to keep the temperature down, and most were made of wood.

Why could this be a Dairy?

First, this is one standard outbuilding that has not been identified at Montpelier. More directly, a feature discovered during our excavations at the South Yard domestic slave quarter revealed a fresh water pipe extending into this area. This type of water access could have been an important part of the cooling system in the subterranean dairy. Also, earthenware milk pans were discovered along the beginning and end of this pipe, suggesting a possible function of the pipe as one related to a dairy.

How do we find it?

The first step in the process was to conduct ground penetrating radar (GPR), which revealed a large anomaly below the surface (the image above shows the GPR image, which covers the area marked in green on the photo of the mansion). Last week, we began excavating Shovel Test Pits (STPs) across this anomaly, to determine if there were any intact archaeological features. We discovered a number of early 19th century artifacts, including nails, ceramics, and bottle glass in a distinct stratigraphic layer. This layer corresponds to the location of the anomaly, providing excellent justification for opening up larger units.

Our first units will be placed to determine the extent of the feature. To do this, we will excavate crossing rows of units along a north-south and east-west axis, skipping every other unit. This approach should reveal the boundaries of the feature. Next, we will place units more strategically to reveal more of the feature and to fully understand its shape. Lastly, we will begin to excavate portions of the feature to determine its contents, and also to gain information about its depth and bottom surface. After this evidence is collected, we will have a good idea as to whether this is the dairy, or if it serves another function.

What will we find?

Identifying the structure as a dairy will rely on the presence of the features described earlier: is there a clear below ground feature? Is it a size typical of a dairy? Does it have a a brick or stone floor and foundation walls? Of particular interest will be how it interacts with the water pipe, and if there is evidence of the water being used as a cooling feature. Identifying the dairy will give us an even more complete picture of the mansion landscape. This part of the mansion has received very little attention archaeologically, and identifying an outbuilding such as the dairy will be a potentially visible and important component of Madison's overall landscape design.

We are also hopeful that the dairy's fill may relate to the occupation of the domestic slave quarters located in the South Yard. It is believed that these quarters and the dairy were dismantled at the same time, after the Madison's sold the property in the 1840s. Because the dairy is a subterranean structure, it was likely filled with refuse from another place on the site. Already, the presence of window glass in the STPs, which are not typically found in a dairy, draws some question into where the fill was coming from. The proximity of the dairy and the domestic quarters makes this a logical expectation, and examining the remains of this feature and objects excavated from the slave quarters may reveal a connection. This could give us an exciting glimpse into the lives of the enslaved laborers who worked for the Madisons.

This will not be our only adventure this summer, but it is where we will be if you come visit Montpelier over the coming month. This week, our first summer Expedition members will be working on this site, and our James Madison University Field School will also get a chance to discover the dairy. If you're interested in participating in our excavations this summer, we have multiple field schools and week-long Expeditions open for students and the public to come work with us!

Terry Brock