In Tolkien's famous trilogy, Lord of the Rings, the tormented Bilbo Baggins finds a form of catharsis in the transcription of the tale of his adventures in his book, "There and Back Again." When sitting down to write this 'blog post, the title of that book just wouldn't leave my mind. I realized that in its own way, the archaeological interpretations of the Tobacco Barn Quarter and have been "There and Back Again," too. Perhaps not quite the epic tale of Bilbo, and certainly involved less giant spiders (though some of our field school students and volunteers would disagree with that!), the story presented by archaeological and documentary research is no less interesting in the insights they give into the daily lives of the Montpelier's enslaved field laborers, and the choices that Madison makes as farmer and natural scientist to ensure the economic success of Montpelier.
As with all stories, we start somewhere near the beginning...
We have all heard the phrase, so how does it apply to archaeology? While often used in derogatory fashion, in reference to the archaeological investigations of the "Tobacco Barn Quarter" it really refers to the comprehensive survey and excavation techniques employed to explore the homes of Madison's enslaved field laborers.
Although the Montpelier Archaeology Department has recently back-filled the two sites that were the focus of the research this year, the work continues—we're still processing samples and cataloging finds both small and large in the archaeology laboratory. If you get the time don't hesitate to walk down the hill from the mansion and come and visit. We're open every day that Montpelier is open, whether you just want to visit or you want to get involved by volunteering.
Continuing my professional journey at this historic place, the home of James Madison, is a tremendous honor. Madison restored himself on these lands before returning to the Herculean task of creating a new nation. I, too, feel restored in returning home to Virginia, to the rolling Piedmont hills, and to the red earth of Orange County.
During the 2012 season, the Montpelier Archaeology Department has been excavating a set of quarters for field slaves within a larger late 18th/early 19th century farm complex site. These excavations are part of a larger research project funded by NEH to examine three different sets of slave quarters at James Madison’s plantation dating to the early 19th century.
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).
While the department’s archaeologists have been working in the South Yard with the students of the James Madison University field school, Lance Crosby, our resident Civil War enthusiast, has been searching the woods for more evidence of Civil War encampments. By means of a systematic survey, with all finds marked and plotted using GPS, he’s made some exciting finds that we thought we would share with our readers, even if they are but the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.
Our surveys in the east woods of Montpelier (behind the Constitutional Center) have been very successful in terms of locating a series of small Civil War camps. What has made these discoveries possible is the excellent work by our newest staff member, Lance Crosby. Lance, a long-time resident of Orange, has a passion for and knowledge of Civil War sites and artifacts that makes him invaluable for locating sites in areas slated for timbering. We are using Lance’s discoveries to not only protect the Civil War camps he has found, but also to interpret them through a walking trail.
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!).