Discovering the Enslaved Diet: Analyzing Seeds and Charred Wood
This winter Archaeologist Sam Henderson has spent her time analyzing plant remains collected from the three early 19th century slave quarters excavated at Montpelier as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. By identifying and interpreting historic botanical material we hope to better understand the foods and fuel consumed by the enslaved people living at Montpelier as well as the environments surrounding the domestic quarters.
How do you find historic plants?
As you might know organic materials such as plants decompose very quickly which is why archaeologists primarily collect and study charred plant remains. During daily activities, parts of plants can get burned in a cooking or heating fire. This carbonizes the otherwise organic material and allows them to withstand the test of time. Archaeologists recover these charred bits of plants, seeds, and wood by taking soil samples and putting these samples through a process called flotation.
During flotation the soil sample is immersed in a tank full of water. The water within the tank is lightly agitated by jets under the water and water slowly flows out of the tank. The lighter charred plants float to the surface, fall down the waterfall, and are collected in a netted bag. The heavier objects in the soil sample (rocks, artifacts, etc.) do not float and are collected in a screen beneath the surface of the water.
Once all of the charred material is collected it can be scanned by a trained archaeobotanist using a basic microscope. Sam learned these techniques and how to identify these materials while completing her Master’s thesis from University of Massachusetts Boston. The most common botanical material collected in flotation is charred wood (this makes up over 99% of the samples). When looking at the samples Sam removes any seeds that she sees (these are the easiest plant part to identify) as well as other plant parts and then identifies a sample of charred wood. All of the seeds and plant parts found are then identified as specifically as possible. Once all the samples have been analyzed it is possible to look at patterns in what is found and better understand what types of food people were using.
So what have we found?
Sam has analyzed samples from three slave quarters on the Montpelier property, including the South Yard, Tobacco Barn Quarter, and the Field Quarter. An additional quarter (the Stable Quarter) was analyzed previous but has been really helpful for comparisons.
In 2011 we excavated two duplex homes in the South Yard. These homes were likely occupied by slave who worked in the Madison mansion. Deep pits which are rapidly filled and covered tend to provide the best environment for charred organic material to be preserved. Because the duplexes at the South Yard did not have any deep pits that could be filled with hearth sweepings the botanicals recovered (from yard scatters) were sparse.
Despite the limitations of collection, Sam was able to identify several common food plants from the South Yard. Wheat and corn appear to have been consumed at the South Yard; these two grains were commonly provisioned to slaves but corn was also commonly gardened by slaves when they had the opportunity. Sam identified numerous weeds, including knotweed, sorrel, goosefoot, and pokeweed; weedy plants grew naturally around homes and many of them are edible and provided important variation in diet. A limited number of fruit remains, specifically peach and cherry pits as well as a fig seed, were recovered suggesting that the slaves in the South Yard may have had access to cultivated fruits, whether from their own gardens or the Madison garden.
Tobacco Barn Quarter
The Tobacco Barn site, based on what we found archaeologically, appears to have originally been used as a tobacco barn then turned into a wheat threshing barn. At some point in its history, however, this barn appears to have been occupied by some of the enslaved workers at Montpelier. The plant material recovered associated with the people living at the Tobacco Barn show that they were eating likely peaches and cherries, wheat and corn, and wild berries and weeds. Even though the Tobacco Barn appears to have only been occupied for a short period of time, the food material recovered from it is surprisingly comparable to that found at longer occupied sites, suggesting that those living at the Tobacco Barn still had the same access to food resources as others on the plantation.
Interpretation of what the Tobacco Barn Quarter structure may have looked like
Also recovered from deposits within the structure were numerous wild plant seeds that were likely introduced during the process of curing the tobacco. Archaeologically, we found evidence of smoking trenches and pits within the tobacco barn, suggesting that the tobacco was smoke cured. When Sam analyzed the samples from those smoking trenches, in addition to the charred wood she found hundreds of clover seeds and numerous wild grass seeds. The species of clover identified produces seeds in late August through September, the same time that tobacco was typically cured. It is possible that these seeds were brought into the structure through natural or inadvertent processes (wind blowing them in or people carrying them in on their clothes or body) and then burned when the tobacco was smoked.
The Field Quarter site had the richest deposits of hearth ash and cooking debris of any of the quarter sites around Montpelier. The Field Quarter site appears to contain the remains of several structures (two were excavated fully). The site contains numerous borrow pits (pits excavated to mine clay to chink the gaps between the logs in cabins), two subfloor pits (pits excavated within a structure for storage of root vegetables and valuables), and several large trash midden deposits. All of these types of deposits are typically used to dispose of cooking ash, making them great places to find the remains of plants used for food.
Sam identified numerous wild species (weeds, berries, and nuts), cultivated grains, and gardened plants. Wheat, rye, and corn were all found at the Field Quarter and could likely have been provisioned to the slaves by the Madisons. Wheat was grown at Montpelier as a cash crop in the 19th century but slaves were occasionally provisioned wheat for food. Some orchard grown fruits were found in the field quarter including cherries, plums, peaches, grapes, and figs. Some of these likely came from the Madison orchards.
Corn is ubiquitious across all the sites at Montpelier, suggesting its importance as a food for the entire enslaved population at Montpelier. While corn was commonly provisioned it was also grown by enslaved populations in their own gardens. Gardens would have provided an essential variety of food to compliment the basic provisions. They also allowed enslaved workers an opportunity to grow excess food to sell in exchange for other goods. Gardened crops found at the Field Quarter, in addition to corn, include peppers and beans.
Wild plants were the most common plants found at the Field Quarter. Enslaved communities often sought out food resources in the woods and fields surrounding their homes. The people living at the Field Quarter consumed wild fruits like elderberry, sumac, and raspberry as well as nuts including black walnut, hickory nut, and hazelnut. All of these could have been gathered in nearby wooded areas. Additionally rather than eradicating weeds from their gardens they likely harvested edible weeds like sorrel, goosefoot, and amaranth.
The Big Picture
The goal of all of this research was to understand the relationship between all these different sites. They are all part of the enslaved community here at Montpelier; what were their lives like? Botanical analyses can help answer questions like: what kind of resources were the people at the different sites using? Are the sites different from each other or similar?
The most important trend Sam has noticed in this research is that the four slave quarter sites studied have very similar plant collections. The most common and important species found were present at all the sites, including wheat, corn, beans, cherries, walnut, and several edible wild weeds. Even at the South Yard, that had a very limited collection, all of these plants were identified. These important plants would have been acquired in many different ways. Wheat was probably provisioned but corn and beans suggests that most of the enslaved community could grow food in their own gardens (or traded with those that did). Orchard grown plants, like cherries, peaches, and figs, were found all over the plantation suggesting that many slaves had access to Madison’s orchards. Finally, the wild plants found at all the sites suggest that the members of the enslaved community at Montpelier used many of the wild resources around them to supplement the food they were provisioned, consuming wild greens, berries, and nuts.
For a complete report on the results of Sam's analysis, see the following webpage that provides links to all the reports from the NEH Enslaved Community Study. Click here to access this report.