Archaeology of the North Kitchen Site


After six months of excavation that included two university field schools and seven Expedition programs, most of the puzzle pieces have fallen into place, and we can now share the final outcome of our endeavors.  With careful analysis, the tangled web of 50 different soil layers and 53 features yielded some interesting and significant results.

Results of the North Kitchen project include identification of intact 19th-century deposits, including those related to the Madison kitchen and surrounding landscape.  Especially significant deposits include features that represent previous locations of kitchen piers.  Archaeological evidence suggests the north, detached kitchen was initially constructed in 1797, 57 feet from the mansion.  This distance is 100 ft from the center-line of the 1797 mansion, just as the earlier south detached kitchen had been constructed 100 feet from the center-line of the 1763 mansion.

When the mansion’s north wing was constructed in 1809, the kitchen was relocated 16 feet to the north, moving the kitchen away from the wing and bringing it into balance with the south detached kitchen; both kitchens were now 38 feet from their respective wings.  This 38-ft distance from the mansion to the north kitchen is depicted on an 1837 insurance map, and the corresponding archaeological evidence confirms this.

Other important Madison-era finds include large drainage trenches located below each kitchen location.  The placement of the drainage trenches suggests these were accessible via a hatch in the kitchen floor.  The starting points of both the 1797 and 1809 trenches correspond to the same area of the kitchen floor, in its respective locations.

Another interesting set of Madison-era features indicates the presence of a wooden work deck stretching between the mansion and 1809 kitchen.  Linear cuts, the former locations of mudsills, were found evenly spaced between the wing and kitchen, at a 6’ 6” interval.   The use of a deck in this location during the early 19th century makes a lot of sense, in consideration of the heavy traffic the area witnessed.  The propensity of this area to flooding was evidenced by the oft mud-covered shoes of archaeologists and Expedition volunteers working here.  The 19th-century enslaved domestic workers who labored in the work area between the mansion and north kitchen were tasked with work inside the mansion as well.  The use of a deck would have limited the amount of dirt and mud brought into mansion from the work yard.

Post-hole features were discovered that appear to represent a latticework screen that spanned from the mansion to the kitchen.  Evidence of this screen can be seen in an 1818 watercolor of the mansion.  In the image, a joist projects from the north façade of the wing in the direction of the north kitchen.  Below the joist, a cross-hatch pattern is present, but is depicted faintly, so as to not obscure the figure of an enslaved worker behind the screen.  (The image is copyrighted and unfortunately cannot be shown here–but many of you have seen the Baroness Hyde de Neuville painting in presentations here at Montpelier).

The presence of a latticework screen would have partially concealed activities of the north work-yard from the front of the mansion.  The reasons for screening areas such as outbuildings and work-yards seem to pertain to a desire to minimize the visibility of slavery.  The intent does not appear to have been to completely hide the existence of slaves, but rather to de-emphasize the role of this population at the plantation.  These sentiments are patently summarized in a period description of Montpelier:

The house stands on a gently-rising eminence.  A wide lawn, broken only here and there by clumps of trees, stretches before it.  On either side are irregular masses of these, of different shapes and foliage, evergreen and deciduous, which thicken at places into a grove, and half screen those dependencies of a handsome establishment–stables, dairies and the like–which, left openly in sight, look very ill, and can be made to look no otherwise, even by trying to make them look genteel: for they are very disagreeable objects, that call up (attire them as you will) ideas not dainty.  As, therefore, the eye should not miss them altogether–for their absence would imply great discomfort and inconvenience–the best way is to half-veil them, as is done at Montpelier.

The very design of latticework, as a material that allows partial visibility, perfectly fits the “half-veil” formula presented in this quotation.  The latticework screen would have acted in conjunction with the trees of the Pine Allée, which also served to partially obscure the kitchen and work yard.  The screen may have been in place before the planting of the pines, and would have been in place well before the trees reached their full maturity (see the December 11th Blog post for more information on the Pine Allée).

For more in-depth information on the site, please take a look at the current draft of the North Kitchen Site Report.  For any of you with an editorial knack, feel free to contact us with your comments and observations concerning the draft report:  Following final edits, the final site report will be available on the Montpelier website on the Archaeology Technical Reports page.  We expect to be adding several reports to this page over the next few months.

Expedition members at the North Kitchen site

Expedition members at the North Kitchen site.

Basic Results of the Investigation

Image demonstrating basic results of the investigations.


Archaeologists excavating features at the North Kitchen site.


Adam Marshall