Dolley's Midden


Last week the Montpelier Archaeology Department hosted our annual Work Study program with this year’s participants focusing on a trash deposit that we have located east of the Madison Temple.  On Saturday, we made an exciting find that has started to clarify the exact provenience for the deposits.  We located a fragment of the Nast china (the china Madison ordered in 1806 while Secretary of State).  We have also been locating more of the Sèvre porcelain plate fragments (the match to the plate in the Grills Gallery which is linked through oral history to Marie Antoinette) and will likely have the majority of that plate once we have finished the season.

The exciting part of these two matches between the archaeology and the known Madison plates is that we can state that we truly have the Madison trash deposit from the retirement years.  All the ceramics we are pulling out date to the early 19th century and are the type one would expect of an elite household (the latest in molded teawares and transfer-printed blue and white plates).  In addition, we are locating champagne bottle fragments (and even the wire stays from the bottles), bone from prime cuts of meat, stemwares, table glass, and lots of oyster shell.  In short, the artifacts coming from the midden indicate we have a trash deposit that can be isolated to the Madison household during the retirement years (as opposed to one which was a common dump site for both the slaves and the Madisons’ household refuse)

We are locating lots of blue and white transfer-printed plates and serving vessels which are likely the day wares (more commonly used set) of the Madisons’ table.  We have identified one pattern of transfer print, called Bamboo and Peony, which was mass produced by the British pottery Davenport between 1815 and 1825 (Coysh 1979:28, image of plate from p. 29).Given the extent of the trash deposit (from the top of the duPont road running under the fill to the gully leading to the farm pond) we have lots of areas to put in units and will excavate in this location for the next three weeks.  The discovery of this midden comes at a very beneficial time as the curatorial department is kicking into high gear in their research efforts in furnishing the house—the artifacts we find will not only serve as exhibits in the house, but also give us first-hand information as to the Madisons’ daily dining wares.

Last week the Earthwatch team and Montpelier Archaeology staff made an exciting find with regard to the Sèvres porcelain plate we recently found.  A base fragment of the Sèvres “Marie Antoinette” plate was identified by staff as bearing a maker’s mark along with artists’ signatures. What we were most excited about was the potential to date the plate to before Marie Antoinette’s ill-fated year—1793, when she was executed by guillotine. The piece turned out to mend to another base fragment that had been recovered earlier in the field season. When mended, the partial outline of the double interfaced script “L” of the Sèvres porcelain manufacturer became clear. In addition, at the bottom of the double “L” was a curious star-like symbol along with an “L.F.” in block letters beside the marks.When the piece was carefully cleaned, scanned, and emailed to John Whitehead, an expert on 18th-century French porcelain and furniture, he was able to identify the painter and the gilder:

On the sherd there are the interlaced L’s with below the heraldic symbol for ermine, the sort of cross with a long comet tail, which is the mark of the also very good flower painter Cyprien Julien Hirel de Choisy, who worked at Sèvres from 1770 to 1801. To the right is the gilder’s mark for André-Joseph Foinet, known as “La France.” He worked at Sèvres from 1776-1803, and then again from 1813 to 1825. With this, the only mystery left was identifying the date letter for the piece.

Unfortunately, the date mark, located within the interlaced L’s, was along the broken edge with only the bottom portion visible. Mr. Whitehead requested a better scan. By scanning at a higher resolution and tracing the remaining mark in a raking light, we were able to make out the bottom portions of the letters. When sent back to Mr. Whitehead, he was able to identify the mark as being closest to a script “mm,” which would date the piece to 1789, matching the year that the duc de Duras, a prominent courtesan of the Versailles court,  purchased his second set of the same pattern and solidifying this second set as matching the first.From the date of 1789, the trail of the plate goes dead until it resurfaces in the Piedmont soil of Virginia and is linked to an intact plate passed down through the Madison family and identified by oral history and documentary accounts as being part of a set owned by Marie Antoinette. What is interesting is the mark on the archaeological specimen does not match the mark found on the intact plate. What this means is that the plates were manufactured in different lots and even painted by different artists (with the intact example being painted by Jacques François Louis de Laroche).Perhaps we will never be able to untangle the mysterious links of these plates to Marie Antoinette, the duc de Duras and their fate during the French Revolution. However, the oral history and written testimony by Madison relatives relating the origin of the plates to Marie Antoinette attests to the fact that the same history that fascinates us is one that certainly fascinated the Madisons and gave these plates such an important place in their home. With the archaeological and heirloom specimens being carefully curated by the Montpelier Foundation, these plates have finally regained their special presence at Montpelier.

nast china sherd

Unedited photo of the Nast porcelain fragment.

nast china sherd enhanced

Enhances photo of the Nast porcelain fragment.

The rim of the Nast pattern plate on display at the Grills Gallery (on loan from Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington D.C.).

champagne bottle and wire stay

Champagne bottle and wire stay.

artifacts from midden

Artifacts from midden.

Bamboo and Peony pattern-John Davenport

Bamboo and Peony pattern.

Bamboo and Peony pattern.

2007 work study participants and Montpelier archaeology staff

The Work Study team with Montpelier Archaeology Department staff.

Sevres makers mark

Sevres makers mark.

Sevres plate with overlying archaeological fragments

Sevres plate with overlying archaeological fragments.


Matthew Reeves