The South Portico: Excavations

Abstract: The South Portico 2007 excavation was principally a mitigation project that revolved around the exterior restoration of James Madison’s Montpelier. Specifically, the excavation of units were to identify the locations of established utility lines thereby allowing the Montpelier Restoration Crew to “key” into these lines and trenches so as to minimize disturbance to the archaeological record. As part of this mitigation, units would also further our understanding of the chronology of the construction and alterations to the mansion in the context of earlier excavations, e.g. the Front Portico excavations of 2004-2006, that revealed significant truncation of Madison-era deposits by Benjamin Thornton in the mid-19th century.

Excavations successfully identified not only the placement, depth, and orientation of the utility lines and their trenches, but also expanding our understanding of the chronology of the garden landscape. Paralleling earlier finds, the area of the South Portico, like the Front Portico, was revealed to have the grade lowered in the mid-19th century before stuccoing of the house (Reeves and Tinkham 2010). This was followed by a series of landscape fills, the first of which was brick and mortar from alterations to the portico columns, until culminating in the placement of sand beds for brick-paved areas and pathways.

In the 20th century, the duPonts would once again alter the landscape around the portico amongst their broader aesthetic changes to the landscape and the construction campaign for the expanded mansion. A series of landscape fills were placed in the area of the South Portico as well as seemingly the deposition of new topsoil to support the numerous American Boxwoods that were planted in the area, two of which were identified in these excavations. Furthermore, some of the Thornton-era paved areas were removed before the deposition of the aforementioned landscape fills.

Following the duPont activity, the landscape remained broadly unaltered until the property came under the ownership of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, from there, the stewardship of The Montpelier Foundation in 2000. Here a number of utility lines were placed to address critical water management and drain issues and, after 2003, a series of gradual accumulation fills associated with the restoration of the mansion itself.
While the landscaping undertaken by Thornton significantly impacted the 18th/19th-century deposits in the South Portico, a number of Madison-era features survived—a stone-lined drainage ditch extended from an arch in the western wall of the mansion, and the original 1763-1764 builder’s trench for the mansion.

The artifact assemblage recovered from the five units placed in the are revealed a principle phase of activity in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, consistent with the established architectural and historical records for Montpelier. These records indicated that while the house was constructed in the mid-18th century, modifications were made to the structure in the late-18th century (construction of the portico) and then once again in the early-19th century (construction of the wings and alteration to the landscape), and remained unchanged until the third quarter of the 19th-century and the substantial alterations to the front landscape. Following that, the landscape again remained broadly unchanged until some minor landscaping by the duPonts.