Archaeology at Madison's Quarter for Field Slaves


The James Madison University field school has had a fantastic run at revealing the secrets of the quarters for field slaves just below Montpelier’s Visitor Center. We have opened up close to 50 units and are slowly developing an idea of how this set of homes was laid out. Early in the season we began discovering concentrations of pebbles and cobbles in distinct patterns at the site. While there were not definite edges to these rock scatters, they were concentrated in discrete locations. As the season went on, we started to discover shallow trenches across the site. These shallow trenches were oriented with the Old Mountain Mill road trace (the road trace that leads from the Mount Pleasant site, past the back of the formal garden, and up into the Landmark Forest). It soon became clear that these trenches were forming squares that measured 16ft x 16 ft. These trenches featured burnt clay at the base and some hearth ash. The question became what are these trenches (and this question still remains!).

Before positing a potential answer to this question, one discovery, a large pit in the same excavation area, revealed much about the architecture of the homes at the site. The pit is likely a borrow pit–an area used by slaves to mine clay used to daub their stick and mud chimney and the gaps between the logs of their homes. Log structures were the most common architectural form that slave quarters took for the time period (see Stable Quarter Post). Similar pits were discovered at the Stable Quarter in 2010. Like those pits at the Stable Quarter, the pit at the field quarter were filled with trash deposits featuring hearth ash, animal bone, and yard sweepings.

Going back to the trenches, one possible explanation was provided by the dimensions formed by these trenches—our best preserved forming a 16ft x 16 ft square–a common building dimension for the time period. Combined with this dimension, the borrow pit suggests the structures being built of log What we are wondering is whether these trenches mark the position for the bottom-most log with the burnt clay serving as a dry base (burnt clay wicks away moisture) and the ash serving to deter insect infestation.

Back to the rock scatters, these rock scatters appear within the confines of the trenches and are either the remains of the hearth and fire box clay reinforced with rock or stone pounded into the clay floor to harden it. We will be excavating this stone scatter over the next week–if we find sterile clay below the stones, we can assume it is part of the clay floor, if we find artifacts and evidence for an occupation surface, we can assume it was part of the firebox that collapsed after the quarter was abandoned.

These questions remain and will likely only be answered until every last inch of the site is excavated. We expect to keep working at the site until mid July (or until we have discovered the answers to these questions). Around mid July we move down the hill a little bit to the next field quarter that we recently located. In the meantime, if you are in the area, please come out for a visit. We are working at site on the weekdays and have interns interpreting the site on the weekends. For more pictures, please visit our Picasa page.

Archaeological excavation of quarter for field slaves


Archaeologists excavating borrow pit at quarter for field slaves.

June 17th overhead shot of site looking towards Visitor Center.



Montpelier Staff