Over the past ten months, Chance Copperstone, an Applied Archaeology M.A. student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, has been analyzing the animal bone recovered from the Stable Quarter, South Yard, Tobacco Barn Quarter and the Field Quarter as part of his thesis research. This work has been conducted under the supervision of Dr. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman, also of the University of Arizona and the Arizona State Museum, who has been involved in past zooarchaeological studies related to Montpelier, including Dolley’s Midden and Mt. Pleasant. Chance’s work seeks to identify the diet of the enslaved population at Montpelier through the identification of the animals utilized by these people and how those animals were prepared and cooked. Analysis of the faunal remains from these quarters provides a unique opportunity to explore variation in food use and risk management amongst the labor-based divisions within the plantation’s slave population, as well as how those processes differed from that of the Madison household.
What is Zooarchaeology?
Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains recovered from archaeological sites. This may include animals used for food, for labor, or for companionship, as well as animals such as rodents that rely on the refuse of humans for their survival. Archaeologists use zooarchaeological data to answer basic questions of diet and nutrition, but also larger questions related to such concepts as economy, ethnicity, reconstruction of past environments and ritual, to name a few. Zooarchaeologists combine concepts from biology, ecology, paleontology and anthropology to answer these questions. Also critical to the study of zooarchaeology, is taphonomy, or the study of all of the forces that impact faunal remains from their birth to the time they reach the zooarchaeologist. To this end, zooarchaeologists study bone for evidence of processing by humans, such as burning or cutmarks, and also for natural processes such as weathering and root-etching.
Key to studying animal remains is to have a solid comparative collection in which identifications can be made. In the case of the slave quarters, this comparative collection is housed in the Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum, on the University of Arizona campus. This collection includes hundreds of complete animal skeletons from all over North America, many of which were gathered by Stanley J. Olsen himself, a founding father in his own right (of Zooarchaeology, of course!). The faunal bone from the Montpelier slave quarters was compared to this comparative collection, allowing for identification of specific bone elements (e.g. humerus, tibia, etc.) which could then be assigned to a taxonomic category. In general, the degree of fragmentation of most faunal bone recovered from archaeological sites limits identifications to the taxonomic level of class, such as bird or mammal; however, it is often possible to identify bones to more specific categories down to the level of species, such as pig or dog. These identifications, combined with evidence of age and processing marks, allow zooarchaeologists to reconstruct past animal use at archaeological sites.
Approximately 26,000 faunal bones have been analyzed from the four slave quarters to date. The bones were recovered from a variety of contexts including subfloor pits, borrow pits and general yard deposits. The initial analysis for all four quarters suggests that the slave population relied heavily on a diet of pork and salted herring, which were likely part of the ration system employed at Montpelier. Nearly all of the fish remains recovered from all four quarters were identified to the herring family, which also includes sardines and shad. Pig remains, particularly teeth and feet bones, account for the bulk of identifiable bones from the collection. Oysters were also likely provisioned to the slaves, as oyster remains are relatively abundant across the slave quarters. At the time, oysters were not a preferred form of cuisine for Euroamericans, and were often distributed to slave populations across the region. Another interesting addition to the provisioning system used at Montpelier is indicated by an abundance of Caprinae (sheep/goat) remains. Sheep and goat bones are notoriously difficult to distinguish based on morphological differences alone; however, the historic record at Montpelier documents the presence of Merino sheep for wool production at the plantation, and it is likely that these animals were distributed to the slaves after they had exhausted their potential for producing quality wool. Somewhat surprisingly, cow remains are present from all four quarters, but only in very small quantities.
Wild game, primarily including marmot, squirrel and other small mammals, were used in all four quarters, although there was clearly a greater emphasis on wild game for those slaves that resided in the Stable Quarter, as 6 different species of small mammal were identified amongst the bones from this location. The Stable Quarter also displayed the greatest variety of fish remains, as catfish, sunfish (possibly including bass), suckers and carp were all recovered from this location. Combined with a relatively large number of turtle remains, this indicates that slaves from this quarter were likely making regular trips to local bodies of water to fish and trap. In contrast, the South Yard remains consist almost entirely of the rationed pig, fish and oyster remains. The Tobacco Barn falls somewhere in the middle, with small mammal remains mixed with sheep, pig and cow remains. The Tobacco Barn collection also included a cut toe bone of a horse, a rather unique cut usually reserved for removing the hide of an animal, which suggests that the animal may have been processed for food. Analysis of the Field Quarter bones is still in progress, but a similar pattern to that of the Tobacco Barn is expected.
This data will be used to look specifically at what animals were eaten by the slave population, and how the slaves prepared their food. More importantly, though, in what ways did the use of animals of the house slaves differ from the field slaves, or from the slaves of the Stable Quarter and vice versa? Also, how did the diet of the slaves differ from that of the Madison household? The data will also be used to address how slaves attempted to buffer risks related to having an adequate enough diet to provide the necessary nutrition to complete their strenuous duties on a daily basis, and how Madison himself managed risk in a more economic sense by supplementing the standard provisions of pork and herring given to the slave population.
For a complete report on the results of Chance'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.