Archaeology of Madison's Stable


For the past two months there has been a flurry of activity behind Montpelier’s Visitor Center. This area hasn’t exactly been clutter-free either. Every day, visitors have seen tents, flags, and archaeologists making exciting discoveries about the Madisons’ stables.

How do the archaeologists even know where to dig? Thankfully we have a copy of an 1837 insurance map which shows the stable in this area. Once the team had a general idea of where to look, archaeologists used metal detectors and remote sensing to pinpoint the stable location. This wasn’t just an afternoon activity. The archaeologists conducted months of metal detector surveys.

These surveys showed where to find clusters of artifacts– horseshoe nails, horseshoes, tools, architectural hardware, saddle parts, and carriage hardware.  Excavation units placed in the location of these artifact concentrations have shown a concentration of cobble that might represent the reinforced floor for the stable or work areas around the stable complex. Good news: these concentrations proved the team was on the right track.

The mystery doesn’t end with the concentrations of artifacts. The cobble concentrations show this was a very active equestrian area.  The broken horseshoes and worn horseshoe nails show animals were often in this area.  Had the team found whole horseshoe nails, this would mean horses were re-shoed in this area.

So far, the archaeologists haven’t found any structural features that we can tie directly to the stable of any of its outbuildings (a carpenter’s shop, for example).  But, the team did find several large post holes which might be related to outbuildings in this area. Post holes are a big deal in archaeology. They show the outline of where a structure once stood. The archaeology team once spent an entire summer looking for the post holes that showed where the original Madison fence in front of the mansion once stood.

So, what else did the archaeologists find? The archaeology of the site behind the Visitor Center points to this area being used for many things. It’s likely that horses lived in stables and craft activities (carpentry and other tasks) took place here. The team found furniture hardware, which means the Madisons’ furnishings were here at one time. There were several paddocks, which suggests there might have been stores (storage areas) located in this area as well.

All in all, our surveys indicate the area between the Visitor Center and the South Yard was a very busy place– with most activity being concentrated on the hill directly behind the Visitor Center. The archaeology team is now  excavating the slave quarter just down the hill from the stable closer to the mansion.

The fun isn’t just for the archaeologists. There is still time to join the team for a week.  Click here to check out the archaeology excavation programs to learn how you can come dig at Montpelier.

Horse shoe recovered from Stable area (please click on image to enlarge)

Horse shoe recovered from Stable area.

Horse shoe nail recovered from Stable area (please click on image to enlarge).

Horse shoe nail recovered from Stable.

Iron bench dog (clamp) recovered from stable area (please click on image to enlarge)

Iron bench dog (clamp) recovered from stable area.

Fragment of cross cut saw recovered from Stable/Craft area

Fragment of cross cut saw recovered from Stable/Craft area.

bolt for door lock recovered from Stable Area (please click to enlarge image)

bolt for door lock recovered from Stable Area.


Matthew Reeves