Archaeology in the North West Yard


Since September, the Archaeology Team has been excavating in mansion’s Northwest Yard. This excavation began in hopes of finding artifacts from an 18th-century trash deposit and locating the planting holes from the pine trees that were planted in the 1810s, as part of Mr. Madison’s Pine Allée that led to the Temple. Already, the team has uncovered an exciting new world of Montpelier 18th-century landscape!

Just before the mansion restoration, a survey around the perimeter of the mansion revealed a brick wall and a rich trash deposit. This led Montpelier’s archaeologists to believe the mansion was surrounded by a brick landscape wall that separated the work areas of the 18th-century mansion grounds from the more formal areas around the house. The trash deposit was located on the north side of the wall, outside the formal grounds that surrounded the mansion. Excavations determined these walls were removed during the 1808-1812 renovations that James and Dolley arranged prior to their retirement from the White House. Removal of the 18th-century landscape wall made way for the Pine Allée. The landscape in this area was raised by about a foot by spreading rubble from the renovations.

This fall’s excavations have yielded a great deal of trash turned treasure. The archaeologists found massive quantities of Chinese export porcelains, animal bone, a beautiful stoneware chamber pot, and finely decorated teawares. The team will examine these wares to determine whether they belong to Madison’s parents’ tablewares. These could also be part of James and Dolley’s dinner and teawares from their first retirement period (1797-1801) when they came home from Philadelphia.

Montpelier’s archaeology team also found lots of brick–as in piles of brick!  We believe this brick debris is from Hugh Chisolm’s (Mr. Madison’s mason) 1809 underpinning of the main block of the house.  One of Mr. Chisolm’s first tasks when he arrived at Montpelier to build the new mansion wings was to replace the first 17 courses of brick under the 1765 mansion core.  This massive (and brave) undertaking resulted in massive waste piles that were possibly used as the base for landscape fills placed atop the 18th-century landscape in the redo of the mansion grounds.  Archaeologists found similar piles of brick at the base of the massive clay landscape fills in the rear lawn.  In a similar fashion, this brick was used to cover the remains of the brick walls after these were removed.

As for the brick walls, the archaeologists are still chasing these today!  The brick walls are far more complex than originally thought. The archaeology team knows the walls frame the mansion for a run of at least 35 feet on the north side of the house. There are multiple turns that seem to head across the front of the mansion grounds. But more on that in the next post.  In the next couple of weeks, the archaeology team will wrap up the excavations and will have more to share. Stay tuned to the Montpelier Blog for the latest!

18th-century Brick wall at mansion

18th-century brick wall at the mansion.

Fragments to Chinese export porcelain plate

Fragments to Chinese export porcelain plate.

Rubble deposit from Chisolm underpinning

Rubble deposit from Chisolm underpinning.


Matthew Reeves