Artifacts from the South Yard


All archaeologists have worked upon sites where it seems that you never find any artifacts, and those where you cannot move your trowel for fear of breaking one of thousands of artifacts.  In the Front Yard it might be a good day to find 12 artifacts, whereas in Dolley’s Midden it would have been a bad day to find anything less than 120 artifacts (or sometimes even 1,200 artifacts!).  The South Yard falls between these two extremes in terms of the number of artifacts recovered, yet has managed to have jaws dropping at the unique finds that have been uncovered. In this post we thought we would share some of these artifacts with our readers, including those that had us excitedly gathered around an excavation unit to discuss the find, and those finds that still elude identification.Given the paucity of evidence from the 1990s excavations, beyond the astounding find of the brick chimney base itself, we were initially concerned as to what evidence might remain in the “Structure 1″ duplex.  In chasing down the location of the duplex, however, were were able to open up a large area of the South Yard, the result of which is to enable us to begin to interpret the day-to-day lives of the domestic slaves that lived and worked in the complex and the mansion.  Although further excavations are needed to fully determine the nature of the deposits, early analysis has allowed us to extrapolate the kind of plates that the domestic slaves might have had on their table, what utensils they may have eaten and cooked with, and even what personal items they had, or the type of music that might have filled the rooms of a duplex after “can’t see” (dusk).


Davenport Ironstone China   Delftware 

The ceramics that have been recovered from the South Yard allow us to begin to piece together the kind of plates, drinking vessels, and other tablewares that might have been used by the domestic slaves.  These materials would have included hand-me-down materials, perhaps plates chipped in the main house and deemed unsuitable for use, or those that the slaves might have bought for themselves in the market.Pictured above, from left to right, are sherds of chinese export porcelain, tin-glazed earthenware, ironstone made by the Davenport manufactory, and finally a rim sherd of shell-edged pearlware.  The Davenport ceramic is of particular interest since it has been found on almost all of the archaeological excavations that have taken place around the mansion, including the area affectionately referred to as “Dolley’s Midden” (early 19th century trash dump associated with the retirement years of James and Dolley Madison).

Cooking Wares

Fork  Dutch oven lid

While often not as pleasing or exciting to uncover from the site, the utilitarian items – the cooking pots and the utensils – provide just as much information to the daily lives of the domestic slaves as the tablewares.A number of utilitarian items are pictured above including, from right to left, a two-tine fork that likely had a bone handle, an iron table/serving spoon, and the lid of a dutch oven (link to picture from Wikipedia article; after viewing press the “backspace” key on your keyboard).


Straight pins  Button Naval 1-piece button

Unfortunately, the majority of clothing does not survive in the Davidson Loam soils upon which Montpelier sits, and it is only buttons, brooches, buckles, pins, and other metal artifacts that we tend to unearth.  Pictured to the right are a number of artifacts that were recovered from what appears to be underneath the duplex slave quarter, as opposed to the artifact-rich trash deposits to the south (rear) of the structure.Pictured above, from left to right, is a clothing button, a bone bobbin used to hold wind thread for sewing, and straight pins that were likewise used by a seamstress. The final button (second row, center) is a Naval 1-piece button dated to 1827-1840.  (We had originally hoped that this was a US Marine Corps button, reaffirming the connection between Madison and the USMC, but, alas, this was not to be the case.)

Music, Culture… and Ritual?

Mouth Harp Pipe bowl

One particularly fascinating find to come from the trash midden to the rear of the structure is a mouth harp, otherwise known as a Jew’s harp amongst many other names (right). To use the mouth harp, the tongue/reed is placed in the mouth of the performed and plucked with the finger to produce a note, with the jaw and mouth acting as a resonator to increase the volume of the note. The note produced is of the same pitch, but by varying the shape of the mouth, the performer can create melodies.The Jew’s harp has also been associated with “trance-based” rituals, so while at the very least it represents music and culture in the slave duplex, it might also represent a connection to past rituals and ways of life.Pictured above on the far right is the bowl from a ceramic pipe for smoking, a common habit for people in the nineteenth century.

Building Materials

Brick Nails

Finally for this post, we come to some of the more common artifacts found in the South Yard 2008 excavations: brick and nails.  As previous posts have described, the duplex had a great deal of brick to the south of its structure, possibly as a means of weathering control to prevent water drainage to the slave quarter and work yard itself.  One brick that was uncovered from behind the duplex, pictured to the right seems to have some form of makers mark, or perhaps a signature, incised on the rear. Although one of the most common types of artifacts found at Montpelier, the midden towards the rear of the duplex is noteworthy in terms of the sheer numbers of nails that were being removed from this area.  The number of nails suggests the repair of structures or recycling of boards (hence pulling of nails) occurred in the work areas of the duplex with a consequence that the waste nails were thrown in the trash area.


Shell-edged ware

Green shell-edged pearlware plate rim.  This ceramic was common among slave quarters in the South.

Chinese export porcelain

Canton-style porcelain.  Similar porcelain fragments were recovered from the mansion and suggest the





Iron spoon recovered from South Yard.  Given its size, this spoon is likely a cooking spoon.

A piece of worked wood

Spindle for thread



Mark A. Trickett
Matthew Reeves