By The Harvest Moon's Light: Excavations of the Field Slave Quarters at the home of James Madison, 2012-2013 season.
The excavation of the Field Slave Quarters, part of what is called the “Tobacco Barn Quarter” by modern archaeologists, is a part of the overall Home Quarter of the Montpelier plantation-farm. Excavations of the area have taken place since the stewardship of the property by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and then sporadically through the management relationship of the Montpelier Foundation from 2000. Initial stratified random sampling revealed the site now known as the “Field Slave Quarter,” with subsequent shovel test-pit survey revealing the original homestead of Mount Pleasant and what were thought to be adjacent quarters for enslaved field laborers.
In 2012 the Montpelier Archaeology Department returned to the area of the Tobacco Barn Quarter to explore what was originally thought to be the quarters for enslaved field laborers. Subsequently this was determined to be a three-phase tobacco barn—tobacco barn, enslaved worker housing, and then wheat-threshing bar—and the site identified to the south to be the location for an occupation site for enslaved laborers.
The “South Site” was originally identified by metal detector survey and ground-truthed through a combination of Phase I and Phase II survey in 2012. These initial explorations revealed a number of interesting cultural features, including a 20-foot diameter borrow pit full of ash, charred wood, and bone. Subsequent geophysics work would reveal a number of deeper features identified as borrow pits, and Phase III excavations would focus around these areas to reveal two distinct house sites and what appears to be yard-based activities such as cooking. Several features were also identified that may represent enclosures, or perhaps earlier agricultural activity. Finally, excavations would also reveal a significant prehistoric component, with the site most likely representing a prehistoric hunting encampment.
Along with the identification of the house sites, initial analysis also reveals intra-site distinction between those two households. House Site 1 seems to have the most activity associated with it, and those artifacts seem to be focus around “industrial activity”—tool use and re-use, the presence of strap iron, utilitarian ceramics—while House Site 2 seems to be the focus of sewing-related activities. Perhaps most intriguing is that the distribution and nature of artifacts contradict earlier assumptions that would define the Tobacco Barn site as representing the homes of enslaved field laborers purely because of a dearth of artifacts. Rather, that site seems to represent short-term or restricted residency, while the Field Slave Quarters show a similar diversity of artifacts—and thus the choice driving the acquisition of such artifacts—as the Stable Quarter and the South Yard.
Excavations in the 2012-2013 field season would also continue to reveal additional features, from borrow pits and ash pits to potential structures or enclosures. These factors taken together suggest that the Field Slave Quarter is the proverbial iceberg, with only the surface scratched in the previous two field seasons.