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Final Results: Archaeological Excavations at the Grove

This fall, the Montpelier Archaeology Department wrapped up the first portion of a multi-year excavation examining the planted landscape surrounding James Madison’s home. The project is designed to identify the locations of these trees so that they can be replanted. The completed excavations were focused in the southwest yard of the main house, where historical documents and paintings suggest a grove of trees was planted. These excavations identified a number of tree plantings, in addition to a number of features relating to the 18th century landscape.

Excavations in 2014 identified a number of potential 18th-century features in this area, although none of them were explored to much depth. In 2017 and 2018, however, explorations targeted specific areas in the southwest yard to determine if evidence of tree plantings could be identified, and where they could be planted without disturbing earlier 18th century deposits.

This painting from the 1840s shows the pine alley to the left of the main house and a grove of trees to the right.

How do we know about the trees?

The historical record indicates that the main house was bounded on either side by intentionally planted trees. Paintings show a grove of trees to the right of the main house, and also a pine alley to the left. Visitor accounts also indicate that these planting features exist, and were used to keep the eye of the visitor on the main house, and obscured the slave dwellings and outbuildings. We also know that when the duPont family took ownership over the property, a survey map from 1908 indicated a number of plants in these same areas, suggesting that the contemporary planted landscape that we currently see was very different in the 19th century.

Click the play button and move through the map to see the different results from the 2018 excavations at the Grove.[vc_column width=1/4]

Finding Trees in the Archaeological Record

A number of tree plantings were discovered, and different pieces of evidence pointed to their existence. The most noteable signatures were where tree stumps either rotted in place, were dug out and removed, or were pulled out. In each case, a slightly different signature was left in the archaeological record.

Stumps that were dug out provided the most clear signature. These were identified by a large circular hole that had been dug through multiple strata to subsoil, and filled in with debris.

Only one feature appears to represent a tree stump that rotted in place. This was represented by a hole approximately 2’x3′ filled with sterile clay that appeared in a strata at a higher level above subsoil. When those strata were excavated to subsoil, an extensive root system was uncovered, suggesting the hole was likely the location of the tree stump.

Trees that were pulled from the ground, likely by attaching rope to a farm animal, had far more disturbance to the stratigraphic soil layers. In these instances, the pulling of the stump caused disturbances to the roots in lower strata. Once the stump was out, these strata settled in place, creating a depression in the upper levels. In some cases, these depressions were filled intentionally, in others they were filled through natural processes.

In these cases, the trees were most evident when excavations reached subsoil, and root systems were identified. These were clear through the staining of subsoil from the rotting tree roots. When this soil was excavated, the result was a lumpy, uneven surface. In many instances, these root systems merged, making it difficult to ascertain which root system went with which tree. Combined with historical documentation such as the 1908 property map, which includes precise mapping of trees, we can ascertain how many and what type of trees are these locations.


Artifacts being sorted that were excavated from the midden (left) and the boundary of the midden that was exposed in 2014 (right). The large stone rubble indicates the location of the trash deposits.

The 18th Century Landscape

We had difficulty identifying tree features in certain areas due to the presence of 18th century deposits. In 2017, the large 18th century trash midden was uncovered, exposing large deposits of refuse relating to the Madison occupation at the site. Due to the extensive nature of this deposit, we were unable to verify the presence of trees in this area. We also cannot replant any trees here, since the deposit was too large to mitigate, and is deserving of its own research project.

Similar issues relate to an 18th century outbuilding identified in 2014 located near to the north of the still standing well house. This structure is represented by a continuous brick foundation and is 16′ square. To the east of the well house, another possible outbuilding is located, represented by a number of complex strata and features. Due to these structures, the tree planting holes found near them will not have trees replanted so that these structures will not be damaged.

Brick rubble located in the Grove site.

The Early 19th Century

Another aspect discovered through excavations this year was a large spread of brick rubble that extended across much of the excavation area. This brick rubble included many compass bricks from the rear portico, indicating that the bricks likely relate to the construction and modifications on the main house during the renovations from 1809-1812. This distribution of brick is similar to other piles surrounding the main house, suggesting that these leftover and removed bricks were used as fill to landscape the formal grounds.

Next Steps

The archaeology department will be moving excavations to the other side of the main house to begin examining the planting holes that stood in the pine alley between the temple and the main house. Previous excavations in 2014 identified a number of these tree holes, and our excavations will focus on fully uncovering and excavating the holes so that we can replant the pine trees.

In the grove, the next step is replanting. This will be done in the spring of 2019 – Montpelier’s horticulturalist, Allyson Marruffo, will be leading that process. A number of spots have been cleared archaeologically for this work through our excavations this past summer.

Because of the emphasis on trees, we’ve decided to orient our next two LEARN Archaeology Expedition Programs to focus on the planted landscape at Montpelier. Participants in the week-long expedition will get a chance to participate in excavations at the pine alley, helping archaeologists uncover the planting holes. They will also work with Allyson to replant some of the new trees at the grove, as we reconstruct the planted landscape at Montpelier. To learn more about how to participate, visit here!