North West Yard Excavations

Abstract: In 2009, the Montpelier Archaeology Department re-opened the North West Yard excavations, formerly identified as either the "Alfonse Deposit" or "Senior's Midden." Originally thought to represent an 18th-century deposit that was sealed by architectural material from the construction of the duplex and portico in 1797-1799, subsequent analysis of the ceramics assemblage revealed important pieces of early 19th-century ceramic. The architectural material, therefore, most likely dated to the changes made to the mansion in 1809-1812 by Hugh Chisholm, who removed and replaced the bottom 18 courses of brick from the main house.

The excavations had three primary goals:

  1. Identify the nature of the architectural material and its chronology;
  2. Recover artifacts from the midden; and
  3. Identify the location of planting holes for trees of the Pine Allée so that this important interpretative feature by

The excavations were therefore targeted at identifying the nature of the architectural material deposit and, further, recovering artifacts from the midden that was deposited beyond northern wall that demarcated the edge of the 18th-century landscape. This material, now associated with the "Honeymoon Years" when the Madison's first retired to Montpelier, could then provide a comparative assemblage that could lead to insight into changing hospitality practices from the 18th and 19th centuries.

While the excavations succeeded in recovering artifacts from the midden assemblage, they also produced evidence for a hitherto unidentified 18th-century structure in the North West Yard. Approximately 16'×40', the structure appears to have been a timber frame with at least three supporting courses of brick foundation. At present the function that this structure would have served is unknown. The presence of a brick foundation on the south side of the main house opens up the possibility that the structures represent symmetrical flanking structures that date from the original construction of the house, though this also requires that the southern structure—if it exists—be moved in the late 18th-century to maintain the overarching Georgian symmetry of the mansion and its landscape.

Although the 18th-century landscape is not a substantial component of interpretation at James Madison’s Montpelier, the possibility of additional dependencies around the mansion raises the issue as to the liminal landscape—how much, or little, did James Madison, Jr. break with the concepts of Georgian symmetry that his father worked with when the main house was first built? How was cultural movement about these different versions organize, and how did they negotiate with each other?