An Unexpected Turn: New Archaeological Discoveries at Montpelier

This summer, the Montpelier Archaeology Department has returned to the Mansion Grounds to investigate the southwest yard. In addition to searching for James Madison’s retirement era dairy and tree plantings, we are also investigating previously revealed evidence regarding possible 18th and 19th century dependencies located near the mansion. Understanding this part of the landscape is critical to our understanding of the retirement period landscape of James Madison, while also providing important information about how James and Dolly modified their plantation setting from the designed plantation of his father, James Madison, Sr. Last week, our team made an unexpected discovery that changes how we understand the landscape that James Madison, his family, and his enslaved laborers lived in between 1797 and 1808.

An Unexpected Turn

In 2009, excavations in the northwest yard revealed foundations of 16’ wide structure related to James Madison Sr.’s plantation landscape, likely standing and in use until 1808, when his son began expanding the plantation landscape. It has been thought that this dependency would have had a partner on the opposite side of the Madison Sr. manor home, ascribing to the Georgian architectural style, which prioritized a symmetrical landscape (shown above).

When the manor home expanded in 1797 to accommodate the future President and his new bride, a process that would have thrown off the symmetry of the outbuildings, the southwest duplex would have moved, a theory supported by the presence of part of a foundation wall excavated in 2002, and the subject of our current investigations (shown above).

Our expectations, however, do not always match our discoveries. After exposing the previously excavated wall, the Montpelier staff, with the help of our James Madison University Field School, excavated additional units next to the wall, which quite literally took an unexpected turn: instead of making a right angle to form the corner of a structure, the bricks made a uniform curve at a 45 degree angle away from the manor home, as shown in the photo below.

What Could It Be?

This discovery is unexpected, and draws into question the previously understood landscape up to 1808, when the manor home had been expanded from Madison Sr.’s single family home into a duplex. Clearly, this wall no longer belongs to a flanking structure, meaning that the Madisons did not move the southwest dependency to maintain a symmetrical landscape. This is a dramatic change from our previous interpretation.

What it does suggest is that the landscape of the manor prior to 1808 had a more complex landscape then previously considered. What is known is that the Madison Sr. landscape included an outbuilding to the northeast, and that the newly discovered landscape wall existed to the southeast until 1808. What is difficult to determine with the evidence available to us is if these outbuildings had symmetrical partners, if they coexisted, or if landscape walls replaced the outbuildings to maintain symmetry. Only additional archaeological excavations and analysis will inform our interpretations. Answers to these questions await further discoveries, and makes the story at Montpelier one that continues to evolve.

What's Next?

Two immediate objectives remain for investigating this portion of the southwest yard. First, we will continue to follow this wall to determine its shape and function. Already, we have exposed it in two additional units, and it continues to travel away from the mansion. Second, this week we will begin uncovering units to determine if there is a partner to the already known 18th century dependency located further south behind this landscape wall.

This wall also gives us reason to reexamine the other side of the manor home, to determine if it has a companion. Unfortunately, a great deal of disturbance has occurred in the front yard of the mansion where the wall would be located, so it is unclear if it has survived. Only additional excavation units will provide the answer!

Interested in participating in this discovery? The Archaeology Department has opened enrollment for our week-long archaeology expeditions, where you can work side-by-side with our archaeology staff to uncover the historic landscape of James Madison! Send us an email at dig@montpelier.org for more information!

Terry Brock