Parting Shot of the South Yard


This week we are putting the South Yard to bed for the winter after a long and productive season. We opened up an area 85′x45′ (approximately 180 5ft. x 5ft. units) and completely exposed two house areas in the South Yard. The South Yard is the site for the homes and work areas for the Madisons’ house slaves. The two homes we excavated were part of a six-building complex within the formal grounds of the mansion. These structures were built in the 1810s and removed in the late 1840s by owners subsequent to the Madisons.

The most exciting part of this year’s excavations has been the incredible preservation regarding the position of the structures in the South Yard and the form these structures took. Excavating two homes during the same season has allowed for comparative analysis between the two structures. Despite the chimney base and foundations being built of completely different materials (one brick and the other stone) the correspondence between structure size (16′x32′), alignment and size of chimney bases, presence of window glass, and both having evidence for raised wooden floors inspires us to confidently state the structures were similar in appearance. It is the chimneys, however, that provide some of the best evidence for the appearance of the structures.

Each structure contained a masonry chimney as opposed to a stick-and-mud chimney, like those we saw in the Stable Quarter last summer. In the 18th and early-19th century, having a masonry chimney reflected one’s status. In order to build a brick or stone chimney, a person would need enough resources to hire a mason and arrange for the processing of raw materials—bricks would need to be manufactured, stone quarried, and mortar produced. Such resources and time spent in labor would not be available to the enslaved community. For this reason, the most common form of architecture for slave quarters was a log structure that featured a stick-and-mud chimney.

The South Yard’s masonry chimneys suggest a substantial investment in resources that could only be directed by the Madisons. The lack of an at-grade hearth also suggests the hearth was set up off the ground in a crib and the floor was a raised wooden floor. Such a floor would be set on joists, which in turn would be set on sills—evidence for the latter being supported (literally) by piers we located for both structures.

The combined evidence for both structures suggests substantial buildings with a great deal of resources and labor invested in their construction. Given these structures are set within the formal grounds of the mansion and in direct view of the rear lawn and the terraces, the resources invested suggest these structures were meant to be seen by the Madisons and their guests.

The question arises as to whether these structures were built for the benefit of the Madisons or the slaves living in these homes. The initial analysis of the evidence suggests the construction favors the Madisons’ needs. First, the timber frame structures in the South Yard featured floors that would have gaps between the butted boards and walls whose thin covering of weather board would make it difficult to keep the heat contained during the winter. Combined with this aspect of the structures, the yards were set in a locale that featured either 10 percent slopes or were at the bottom of a ravine that would ensure washes in rain storms (especially given an open clay yard). Given the importance of yards for African Americans (the scene for daily tasks such as food preparation, laundering, craft activities, and other assorted tasks took place) the limited size of the yards combined with poor locale would not be advantageous.

Over the next several months, we will be busy cataloging the artifacts from the site, compiling sketches created throughout the excavation seasons into site plans, and writing up the results of our findings. In the next couple of weeks, we will be posting a blog entry that features an array of the artifacts we located this season. What is particularly exciting about the artifacts we have recovered from the South Yard is they all date to the Madison-era–showing these homes were no longer occupied after the Madisons’ sale of the property in 1844.

This last blog for the season would not be complete without a big thank you to all of our 2011 expedition participants, work study program regulars, and our annual field school students. Without you all, we would not have been able to accomplish all the work this season. You all should be proud of the contributions that you made to our continual process of discovery of Madison’s plantation home! To see some photos of this season’s expedition members in action, check Montpelier Archaeology Department’s web photo albums.

Overhead shot of excavations in the South Yard showing the two duplex structures fully revealed. Notice post holes for possible porch associated with duplex with brick chimney base.—December 2011.

Photograph of South East duplex with Stone Chimney. Notice barbecue trench in foreground right. The two post holes to the right of the structure are possible related to a porch? They are the same distance (eight feet) as the porch post holes encountered in the South West duplex (see photo to the right in blog posting).

Photograph of South west duplex with brick chimney base. Notice trench in lower right-hand corner. This trench contained what we believe to be the remains of a wooden water pipe. It is possible this waterline leads down slope to a spring house or dairy.



Montpelier Staff