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A Double Row of Beautiful White Pines: Excavating Madison’s Pine Alley

This month, the Montpelier Archaeology Department will be starting a new research project on the north end of the main house. The research is the second half of our investigations of Madison-era tree plantings that flanked the main home during the 1820s. Unlike our previous excavations searching for the Grove, however, these excavations are focused on a much better documented, previously investigated, and more more precisely designed set of tree plantings: The Pine Alley pronounced All-ay .

This watercolor from 1841 shows the pine alley to the right of the main house, connecting the temple/icehouse to the main home (courtesy of Dr. and Mrs. W. Alexander Williams). Caroline Rebecca Nourse, Montpelier, 1841, watercolor on paper, Private Collection,

An Avenue of Pines

The Pine Alley is mentioned often in the historical record, far more than the grove of trees, in part because of the two components of the landscape that it connected: the front portico of the main house, and the icehouse, which was topped with a decorative, colonnaded Temple. The earliest mention is from 1832, when John Latrobe writes about the view from the portico, stating that to the right is, an avenue of trees…terminated by a pretty temple of six Tuscan columns. John H. B. Latrobe to Charles Carroll Harper, August 3, 1832, box 4, John H. B. Latrobe Family Papers, MS 523, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland, MRD-S 123.

George Shattuck provide more details, noting that the avenue is penned by rows of silver pine, and that these two rows are converging toward the temple George C. Shattuck, Diary, 1834-1842, George Cheyne Shattuck Diary, MS N- 910, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts, MRD-S 39755. This suggests that the rows were angled towards to temple, creating a forced perspective when standing on the portico itself. By 1862, these pines had grown significantly, with Somerville Williams describing the pines as magnificent and as large as tremendous oaks. Somerville Williams to Mary Lipscomb, November 28, 1862, Moncure Family Papers, 1862-1967, MS 2 M7448b, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, MRD-S 29142.

One painting, a watercolor from 1841, shows the pine alley in the most detail we have seen, providing additional clues as to its design. Located to the left of ht main house, the trunks of the trees are visible, clearly showing that the pines were limbed up. This detail mimics the columns found on the temple and the portico, meaning that the pine avenue was meant to reflect a colonnaded walkway, not just an avenue of trees.

A photograph from the 1880s showing the Temple at the end of two rows of pine trees (Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society).In the decades following the Madison ownership of the main house, it appears that there were attempts to remove and replant the pine alley. The 1908 Map (below), a detailed map that shows the position and type of trees across the property from early in the duPont ownership, shows that some of these trees closest to the main house still remained, and maintained the forced perspective, being further apart at the main house, but eventually narrowing to the width of the temple.

Since then, more trees were planted closer to the Temple, having died and been cut down in subsequent years. Excavations, therefore, will be increasingly challenging due to the presence of roots and stumps located in the same areas where the original tree plantings had once existed.

Previous Excavations

Archaeologists in 2013 did some preliminary testing at the Pine Alley to test the expected layout of the trees. These excavations demonstrated the presence of large holes that were dug either as the original planting holes from the 1810s, or as removal holes from later years.

For the trees located closer to the temple and icehouse, they also uncovered a series of depositional layers relating to the construction of the 25′ brick-lined ice cellar that was placed underneath the Temple. This soil is a bluish-gray waxy clay, and appears to have been spread across the landscape. This soil was also cut by the large tree hole features, making the holes extremely visible to the archaeological eye.

Since these excavations, our team has done a lot of exploring of tree plantings, particularly last season when we excavated the Grove. Part of these excavations helped us develop a model that can determine how a tree was removed based on the type of archaeological evidence left behind. We hope to apply this model to understand how trees were removed and replanted in the Pine Alley.

An image from the 2014 excavations showing two tree holes in the process of excavation.

2019 Field Season

We expect to be working on these trees for the upcoming field season, through at least July. We are planning on fully excavating 6-8 of the holes, so that they can be ready for replanting this fall. We have a number of research questions that are guiding our work, which include determining whether the tree holes are from planting or removal, getting a firmer grasp on the different depositions that have taken place, verifying the location and organization of the trees, and finally, determining if there is any other activity in the area that might be identifiable from the material record.

As always, we want your help in making these discoveries! We have two archaeology expeditions scheduled this spring, one in April and another in May, to work on this project, and two more in July following the Montpelier Field School. Slots are open on all these programs, and we would love to have you join us!

And, we are planning on doing a number of Live video feeds through Facebook and Instagram from the field! So make sure you are tuning in to the Montpelier Facebook Group and the Archaeology Instagram account to learn more about this project as it unfolds!