Excavations in the South Yard—A Thanksgiving Feature!


As we approach Thanksgiving, we thought it would be fun to share with you an appropriate find for this time of year when “sumptuous” feasts are on everyone’s mind. As mentioned in a previous post, we are completing our excavations in the South Yard where we just recently located a linear trench that is 2.5 feet wide and runs for at least 12 feet. The sides of the trench are scorched from an intense fire and it is filled with brick rubble containing mortar and window glass. At the bottom of the trench we located a heavy deposit of wood ash and charred wood. The combination of evidence–fire-hardened clay, ash, and the dimensions of the feature–suggest that it might be a barbecue pit or trench. Of the bones we have recovered, one of the most notable is a jaw from a juvenile pig (shoat).

There are several references to the Madisons hosting barbecues such as that described by Mary Cutts:

Barbecues were then at their height of popularity. To see the sumptuous board spread under the forest oaks, the growth of centuries, animals roasted whole, everything that a luxurious country could produce, wines, and the well filled punch bowl, to say nothing of the invigorating mountain air, was enough to fill the heart of an anchorite with joy!1

The age for the juvenile pig jaw matches those recovered from Dolley’s Midden (a trash deposit that we excavated in 2007 where we recovered large amounts of dinner plates and animal bone associated with the Madisons’ entertaining during the retirement years). The age of this jaw supports this roasting trench/barbecue being used for such occasions as described by Mary Cutts above.

The tradition of using a trench to contain the fire and then laying the animals to be roasted on sticks over top of the trench of hot coals seems to be one that dates to the 19th century if not earlier (see the following woodcut from Harper’s Weekly). The distance of this pit from the rear lawn (where Dolley hosted her barbecues) is appropriate to remove from the scene the smoke and heat of roasting the animals. The position of this pit in the South Yard is of interest for two reasons. First it is at the bottom of the slight gully where archaeologists located another trench that contained a wooden pipe. What is clear from the excavations is that the trench with the wooden pipe was backfilled soon after the pipe was installed while the roasting trench remained open. We are speculating that the building debris (brick bats, mortar, and window glass) that we have recovered from the roasting trench might have been deposited when the slave homes were taken down in the late 1840s. The trench served as a convenient repository for this debris as Montpelier’s owners in the late 1840s extended the lawn into this area–much as it has been for the past 160 years. This lawn helped preserve the site undisturbed and allowed for the magnificent preservation of the features we have uncovered this season. The second point of interest is the presence of this trench within the slaves’ home yards is a vivid reminder that even in the home place, slaves lives were not of their own domain.

We will spend the next week defining these two trench features (one for fire the other for water!). During the first two weeks in December, we will begin the process of backfilling the site so that Craig Jacobs can come in and build the last of the timber frame outlines for the slave homes we have explored this season. In a few weeks we will post the final image of our excavations with all features revealed.

For a final photograph of the South Yard excavations, click here!


1. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 

Staff archaeologist Kira Runkle excavates the barbecue trench in the South Yard. Notice the reddened clay edges along the right side of the trench. Fires being built within the trench scorched the clay and transformed them into a brick-like consistency.

Staff archaeologist Matt Greer shown recovering pig jaw from barbecue feature. The age of the pig jaw, a juvenile shoat, matches those recovered in Dolley’s midden.





Montpelier Staff