Expanding Our Search: More Excavations at the Southwest Yard

Our investigations of the Mansion’s Southwest Yard continues to yield interesting and unexpected results. In addition to our search for the Madison period Dairy, and the discovery of a likely–18th century landscape wall, we have expanded our study to cover additional areas on the landscape, including examining the retirement period planted landscape, some unknown features identified in the 1990s and early 2000s, and identifying the extent of James Madison’s formal garden. Over the coming weeks, we will be aided by the SUNY-Plattsburgh Field School, including students from across the country, who will be working with us for the month of July.

The Planted Landscape

Last fall, we identified the location of the pine allee, two rows of trees leading to the temple from the portico, and that drew the eye of approaching visitors towards the mansion. The Southwest Yard, however, included a different sort of planting arrangement. Paintings of the mansion show a less ordered, more naturalistic setting, which served as a backdrop to the mansion for visitors and shielded the view of the South Yard domestic slave quarters (As highlighted in the painting from 1832 below).

This arrangement makes identifying the location of these trees difficult, since there does not appear to be any order to their distribution. To aid our investigation, we are using a map from 1908 that shows the location of trees on the property. Excavating the locations of these tree planting holes and tap roots may provide some evidence indicating how long ago these trees were planted. Identifying other features in the area also give us a glimpse into the 18th century landscape so that, if this grove of trees is replanted, we can be sure to avoid or excavate certain features.

Some Unidentified Features

Since the 1990s, archaeologists have placed units in the Southwest Yard to mitigate drainage and other contemporary modifications made to the landscape. This summer, we are revisiting these features to determine their function, and also to examine these same units for tree plantings.

A Possible Foundation

In 1997, one 10 x 10 foot unit revealed a section of brick between Nelly’s Kitchen and the western smokehouse. Likely a robbed out foundation wall the interior of this structure is unique: the excavators noted that it had a scraped bedrock floor two feet below the ground surface. We are revealing this foundation again to identify its full extents, date its period of occupation, and determine the structure’s function.

Brick Scatter and Unknown Feature

In 2005, in continued efforts to remove water drainage away from the mansion, archaeologists revealed two features behind the Well House: one an indeterminate feature that was only clipped by excavation, a second revealed a lump of bricks. Our excavation this summer are investigating these areas further. Already, the lump of bricks has turned into an increasingly large brick scatter, accompanied by other artifacts such as bone and bottle glass. Further excavations will identify and date the scatter.

The Garden

The final area we are examining moves us away from the Southwest Yard and to the front of the Madison Garden. According to landscape analysis of the historical documentation conducted by Allan Brown suggest that there was a semicircular fence expanding the garden into the yard. This would have served as the kitchen garden, and added significantly to the acreage of the garden. Previous efforts to identify a fenceline have turned up empty, due to the dramatic earth moving undertaken by Madison when they flattened the back lawn. Our excavations are looking to determine if there is a dramatic change in soil depths, the presence of planting features, and a possible artifact distribution differences that may suggest an inside and outside of the semicircular garden.

Overall, the project this summer is giving us a broad understanding of the Southwest yard. While we may not have the opportunity to do in depth excavations at these sites this summer, exposing and identifying these various sites provides a wider understanding of this otherwise unexplored part of the landscape, and will help us focus on more specific excavations in the future. Already, these excavations have begun to rewrite our conception of the 18th century landscape, and will continue to add to our understanding of Madison’s life at home.

Want to be a part of the process? We have opened enrollment for our Archaeology Programs that begin in August. You can help us discover more of James Madison’s plantation by working alongside our archaeology staff. Visit our program website for more information!

Terry Brock