Update on Archaeology at the Quarter for Field Slaves


This past month with the James Madison University field school has resulted in some exciting finds at the site of the quarter for field slaves. After almost a year of excavating the site to find evidence for structures, we have finally identified two features that provide clues to the location for the homes of the field slaves that worked Madison’s farm in the early 19th century. These two features, located about 80 feet apart, are rectangular pits filled with hearth ash and trash deposits. Known as sub-floor pits by archaeologists, these are exactly the sort of evidence we were hoping to find that would suggest the location for the log structures that field slaves call home.  Slaves would uses these pits to store root crops, personal items, and sometimes use them as sumps to direct water away from the clay floors of the building.  The presence of ash in the two pits we located suggests storage of root crops such as sweet potatoes with the ash serving as a deterrent to insects and mold.  

What is surprising is the lack of other features such as hearths or other structural elements. This absence, including the complete absence of window glass and brick, suggests the homes contained the barest of manufactured materials and consisted of logs, clay floors, and stick and mud chimneys. Similar to other quarters for field slaves in the Virginia Piedmont, slaves at Montpelier were provided very little for the construction of their homes. This makes locating these homes through archaeological methods incredibly difficult in comparison to evidence left for the enslaved domestics at Montpelier in the South Yard.  The absence of hearth evidence might reflect the use of a hearthstone that has been removed…but the during the next month of excavations, we hope to clear this mystery up.  The arrival of 15 new students with Montpelier's July Archaeological Field School provide us a means of clarifying the situation!

Excavations at the site have also revealed shallow pits that were likely dug by slaves to obtain clay for daubing the structures and lining the stick chimneys to keep them from catching fire. Later, these pits were used as a for trash deposits. Their upslope position in relationship to the yard and cabins suggest these pits also served as sumps to divert rain water wash from the structures. Log structures with clay floors were most susceptible to moisture as the otherwise hard clay floors could be rendered to mud with water. A similar layout was observed at the log structure we located just outside of the South Yard in 2010.

Our excavations to date have been successful in locating these long-lost homes for Madison’s field slaves. What is particularly exciting about the site is its relative undisturbed condition. Once abandoned in the 1840s, the homes decayed and the site was used as pasture for the next 160 years. This has resulted in well-preserved yard features and artifact deposits (especially animal bone). It is one of the few field quarters in Virginia that has escaped the plowing of the late 19th and 20th century and is an archaeological treasure. In combination with its exceptional preservation, the proximity of the site to our visitor area (it is a short walk from the visitor center) places it a prime position for future interpretation through signage and restoration of structures.

In addition, the finds from this summer’s excavation will provide an excellent comparative perspective on the archaeological remains of other enslaved homes we have found over the past three years of research. Excavations in the South Yard (homes for enslaved domestics) provide the great contrast with the field quarters in terms of structural remains. Through such comparative perspectives, we are better able to understand the larger makeup of the enslaved community that lived at Montpelier during the retirement years. 

August 25, 2013 update - This past week we completed excavations at the quarter for field slaves. After over a year's worth of excavations, we have located at least two structures, thousands of artifacts, and a better understanding for how the majority of Madison's slaves lived--in very spartan conditions.  During the final month of excavations, we have been focused on excavating the trash deposits at the site (downslope areas where households threw their broken ceramics and other household waste) and exposing more of the areas surrounding the structure. We located a road bed at the house site furthest from the visitor center--and this serves as a wonderful transition to the archaeology we are doing next at the mansion. While the field work on the field quarter is complete, there is much artifact washing and analysis in the lab that will be carried into the fall. We are hosting a ceramics workshop in November where we will be analyzing all the early 19th century ceramics recovered from the site.

To watch a summary film that NEH has produced on our project, click here.

Matthew Reeves