"...and the kitchen sink."

We have all heard the phrase, so how does it apply to archaeology? While often used in derogatory fashion, in reference to the archaeological investigations of the "Tobacco Barn Quarter" it really refers to the comprehensive survey and excavation techniques employed to explore the homes of Madison's enslaved field laborers.

Although the Montpelier Archaeology Department has recently back-filled the two sites that were the focus of the research this year, the work continues—we're still processing samples and cataloging finds both small and large in the archaeology laboratory. If you get the time don't hesitate to walk down the hill from the mansion and come and visit. We're open every day that Montpelier is open, whether you just want to visit or you want to get involved by volunteering.

So what did we find this year?  

Well, Matt Reeves talked earlier this year about the "North Site."  We've found a lot since then, both in terms of excavation and the historical research that helps us put those finds into a cultural context, so we will be updating you on that in one of the next 'blog posts.  (If you raised your eyebrows at the idea of burning a foundation trench for the long-term preservation of wooden sills, prepare to have them further raised!)  More on that and the "North Site" later, though.

The "South Site," which is just down the hill from the Visitor Center and at the base of Chicken Mountain, has been the focus of our most recent activity. Initially identified by metal detector survey—archaeologists use metal detectors as a form of geophysical survey—and then further delineated by the formative Montpelier Archaeology Certificate Program for avocational metal detectorists. Metal detector survey allows a large area to be covered quickly, but only records the presence of a metal artifact underneath the ground and not what the artifact is.  It also doesn't identify the presence of non-metal artifacts such as bone, shell, ceramic, and glass.  As such, staff archaeologists subsequently excavated a shovel test-pit survey, which requires the excavation of a small test-pit (with a shovel—archaeology nomenclature is ever original) about 1.2 feet in diameter on a grid spaced about 10 feet apart.  The soil is sifted and the artifacts recovered.  (It took about three days for the metal detector survey, and three weeks to cover the same area with the shovel test-pits.)

Despite the differences in the survey techniques both painted a similar picture—separate concentrations of artifacts that hinted at the presence of some 4-5 structures, and what appeared to be a number of borrow pits full of artifacts, charred wood, and ash.  Borrow pits, or deep pits that were opened up for the clay to "chink and daub" log structures, are almost always very near to the structure, so finding a borrow pit means that you're in the right area for a log structure.  They're also usually full of artifacts because after excavation they become rather useful places for disposing of household trash.

From July to November, students from the Montpelier Historical Archaeology Field School and participants in the Archaeology Expeditions opened up excavation units to explore these concentrations of artifacts, borrow pits, and other features.  During this period thousands of artifacts were unearthed to be processed at the archaeology laboratory, as well as seven other archaeological features that may be more borrow pits or sub-floor pits (commonly found inside the quarters for enslaved individuals).  Although no direct evidence for structures was found in this field season, these features will focus our excavations next year.
In addition to the features, archaeologists also identified a "sheet midden" (down-slope surface trash dump) that also points to the location of a structure further up the slope (the metal detector survey revealed a concentration of artifacts likely from a structure, while the shovel test-pit survey revealed the trash dump).  

To further aid the identification of the structures, James Madison University's Department of Geology in the form of Dr. Anna Courtier and her geophysics class brought the proverbial "kitchen sink:" a ground-penetrating radar unit and a magnetometer.  As with the metal detector, this equipment allows archaeologists and geophysicists to look beneath the ground without disturbing it.  The analysis of the results of these surveys is on-going, and we hope to have the results by March 2013—just in time for the first Archaeology Expeditions.

The Montpelier Archaeology Certificate Program

Our staff archaeologists are currently tromping around Chicken Mountain setting up the grid for the forthcoming MACP in February and March, 2013.  On these programs, experienced avocational metal detectorists will be introduced to the use of the metal detector in the archaeological context with a grid-based survey on the mountain to identify house sites and possible encampments, and around the mansion to identify the 19th-century carriage road.

If you find yourself visiting Montpelier over the New Year and through into March and wonder what the sea of blue and red flags near the mansion happens to be?  That's what we are doing—using a metal detector to help us find the 19th-century carriage road and any additional 18th or 19th-century sites that may exist in the area in front of the mansion. (And we have already seen some great results.  We shall, however, keep quiet on that until a little bit later on in the year.)

Montpelier Archaeology Expeditions

If you're interested in archaeology or want to help out Montpelier staff archaeologists with their exploration of the quarters for enslaved field laborers then you might want to consider participating in one of the Archaeology Expeditions.  The programs are great for individuals and for families wanting to spend some quality time together in a completely unique—and inspiring—setting while simultaneously exploring the experiences and foundations of early America.  Without the help of our volunteers and program participants we would not be able to delve into the everyday life of James and Dolley Madison as much as we do.

Mark A. Trickett