South Yard Excavation Report: Excavations at the South East Duplex and the Southern Portion of the Mansion Grounds Fence Line

Abstract: In 2008, Montpelier archaeologists returned to excavations the South Yard domestic complex as a means of furthering our understanding of the roles and lives of the African-American enslaved community at James Madison’s Montpelier.

Previous archaeological investigations in the area of the South Yard had revealed a number of archaeological features, including: (1) a brick chimney base that was interpreted as a central base to a duplex structure; (2) a brick feature that could have represented a disturbed garden path or other feature; (3) a linear series of stake holes that formed a paling fence and which were thought to define the 19th-century curtilage; (4) the foundation of a brick detached kitchen; and (5) a number of access pathways around the mansion. These finds were put into perspective in 2003 with the discovery of a fire insurance plat that was produced in 1837, preceding Dolley Madison’s return to Washington, D.C. This document showed a number of dependencies in the South Yard: three slave duplexes (or “dwelling houses for servants”), and two smoke houses. These formed two rows, one to the east containing two dwellings and an intermediate smokehouse, and one to the west that contained a single smokehouse and dwelling (the detached kitchen is curiously absent). When this scaled map was overlain with digital maps of the Montpelier property, the position of the brick chimney base as recovered through archaeological survey matched with the south-western dwelling. Thus, the archaeological and historic record appeared to conform to each other.

The excavation goals of 2008 were therefore to unearth the evidence for the assumed brick chimney base of the south-eastern duplex and, from that, determine the location of other features that might aid in determining the nature of the overall structure, e.g. position of windows, entrances, and so forth. By the end of the field season, 2,118 square feet had been excavated in search of structural evidence.
Ultimately, archaeological excavations revealed evidence for:

  • The location of the duplex as determined from the identification of a stone chimney base that was symmetrical in the landscape with the original brick chimney base excavated in the 1990s.
  • The presence of a post/rail fence line that extends east-west across the southern-most portion of the site and extending at least over to the South West Duplex. This also provides the best evidence for the length of the duplex being consistent with that recorded on the insurance plat based on this fence’s relationship with the chimney base.
  • The continuation of the paling fence as it extends on a line orthogonal to the main axis of the garden, though evidence also suggests that this was a fairly short-lived fence line.
  • The identification of the “brick feature” as a likely French Drain, or form of water management associated with the South East Duplex to control erosion from run off from the south (upslope).
  • Identification of a path that lay underneath the footprint of the duplex, perhaps indicating that it exists as a liminal feature between different garden landscape designs.