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Archaeology for All

Montpelier engages public help to unearth America’s buried past

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Montpelier Involves the Public in Archaeology

The first non-archaeologists participated in a public excavation on the South Kitchen in the early 1990s, launching archaeology as a public discipline at Montpelier. Since then, engaging the public has been the hallmark of the archaeology department, one that has grown to host over a dozen week-long programs annually with over 1,000 participants having worked side-by-side staff archaeologists. “Nowhere else can you spend a week working on actual archaeological sites with a fully trained staff of archaeology professionals, on the property where our nation’s most important ideas were formed,” says Senior Research Archaeologist, Terry Brock. “Its an incredibly unique opportunity, and it’s foundational to everything we do as a department and institution.”

Terry Brock

Doctorate in Anthropology from Michigan State University

Specializes in plantation landscapes, the archaeology of African Americans, and the use of digital tools for public engagement. Member of the Society for Historical Archaeology

Rebecca Gilmore Coleman participating in an excavation with Montpelier archaeologist, Bess Badger

Including the public in archaeological research accomplishes two main objectives:

First, it pulls back the curtain on the archaeological process and offers the public a deeper understanding of how we know what we know about the past. “The goal of our programs is to make archaeological research more of a ‘citizen science’ and wholly accessible to the public,” says Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration. “The public is directly involved in discoveries that shed light on the founding of our country.” Whether visiting the archaeological site, exploring the lab, or spending a week excavating on-site, Montpelier offers the unique opportunity to literally get your hands dirty unearthing the past.

Secondly, the results of public inclusion and participation are visible on the landscape: every fence and building, every plate on Madison’s table, every structure in the South Yard is informed by the archaeological work conducted on the property. “Authenticity is critical to our physical interpretation, and there is no greater proof that something was part of the historical landscape then discovering it in the ground,” says Elizabeth Chew, Vice President of Museum Programs. “Giving the public a chance to be a part of each stage of discovery, from identifying and excavating, to analyzing and reconstructing allows for deeper understanding and more meaningful connection to the property, crystallizing the link between research and interpretation.”

Matthew Reeves

Doctorate from Syracuse University

Specializes in sites of the African Diaspora including plantation and freedman period sites, and Civil War sites. Serves on the Executive Board for the Society for Historical Archaeology, and is a founding board member for the Orange County African American Historical Society

Public archaeology expedition members working to uncover artifacts in the South Yard

Archaeology is paramount to the honest telling the story of Montpelier. Of the thousands of objects the Madison’s owned, what has come to Montpelier intact is barely enough to fill a single room. Therefore, the artifacts identified archaeologically are often the only information we have to guide the furnishing of the house, and about the day-to-day experiences of the Madison’s and their enslaved laborers. The often mundane, yet vitally important, details of everyday life can only be discovered through archaeology. “Without archaeology we wouldn’t know that James and Dolley Madison regularly served suckling pig and veal to show off their wealth to their guests, or that the enslaved girls living at Montpelier played with dolls to learn how to tend to their mistress” says Mary Furlong Minkoff, Curator of Archaeological Collections. “Through the careful analysis of the thousands of objects that we analyze in the Archaeology Lab each year, we can put together the pieces of what life at Montpelier was like.” 

Barely Enough to Fill a Single Room

A few pieces of fine art, partial services of French porcelain, two partial tea services, and fewer than ten pieces of furniture--most of which date to his parents’, James Sr. and Nelly Madison’s, purchasing period

Mary Furlong Minkoff

PhD from University of Maryland, College Park.

Specializes in civically-engaged archaeology, community archaeology, African American archaeology, sensory archaeology, and Civil War archaeology.

Citizen Science

The public archaeology programs at Montpelier are designed to give participants an immersive, team-based archaeological experience. By letting participants engage with the process of archaeology and the material history of the site, they gain a deeper understanding of the past. Montpelier offers a wide-range of opportunities for the public, including visiting the site and lab, attending week-long expedition program, participating in a field school, or volunteering in the lab

A critical part of involving the public in this process is what we call “citizen science:” where public participants are given in-depth training on all aspects of the science of archaeology – from how we survey the land to locate sites, to how we layout a site with excavation units to uncover archaeological deposits, to the analysis of the artifacts. 

The Expedition programs are the most immersive opportunities for the public. By working side-by-side with professional archaeologists, Expedition members have the opportunity to unearth the artifacts that help reveal insight into the 200-year-old story the property. “I have joined several Expeditions at Montpelier over the past few years, and I keep going back because there is always something new to learn,” explains Dean Cummins, veteran of seven Montpelier Expeditions. “Guided by Montpelier’s friendly, knowledgeable, and hard-working staff, I’ve helped uncover the plantation’s history using the best archaeological methods. The expeditions offer truly unique opportunities to help define Montpelier’s place in shaping and nurturing our nation during the early years. I can’t wait to get back.”

Public participating in lab analysis

Four different Expedition Programs are offered, spanning each portion of the archaeological process: Locating, Excavating, Analyzing, and Reconstructing.

The Location program is a partnership with the metal detecting community, and archaeologists and metal detectorists work together to identify archaeological sites. The program has been heralded by archaeological associations as the playbook for this unique collaboration, and has been supported by The National Geographic Society. 

The Excavation Program is the most extensive, featuring 10 sessions each year. Participants spend four days digging side-by-side with archaeologists on our latest excavations and one day in the archaeology lab cleaning and identifying the artifacts they uncovered. Our most exciting excavation partner has been the descendant community – a group for whom the unearthing of artifacts from the ground is a powerful connection to their ancestors. 

The Analysis program features work in the archaeology lab mending and analyzing ceramics, providing visitors with a more detailed understanding of what happens with objects after they’ve been found.

Finally, participating in the Reconstruction Program offers visitors the opportunity help build structures based on archaeological discovery, connecting the archaeological record to the interpretations of place. 
These programs connect the public to the past, the past to the present, and build a community around the unique processes at Montpelier. “It’s so wonderful that you all have so many opportunities for regular folks to participate and learn about Montpelier in general, and about the enslaved peoples who were instrumental in building and maintaining the plantation,” says Expedition participant, Miriam Hundley.

"I have visited many old 'homes' through the years and have never been taught as much about the people who worked behind the scenes to make the site prosper."

A critical part of this camaraderie is creating a connection between participants and the historical significance of Montpelier. Archaeology allows participants bond with the landscape by taking part in the process of discovery, and personally connects them to unearthing the early history of our nation in a tangible and meaningful way.

"James Madison" bottle seal uncovered by archaeologists

Making the Invisible Visible

Unfortunately, many of Madison’s personal papers were destroyed after his death. The ones that remain aren’t detailed enough to provide intimate knowledge of the lives of the Madisons and the enslaved community who built and inhabited the property. Thus is the power of archaeological discovery. 

Due to the complete invisibility of slaves’ daily routines from the historical record, excavating everyday belongings provides essential clues that offer insight into the slaves’ lives, and provides information on the plantation available through no other source. “These people, and the structures they lived and worked in, left a very small paper trail – but the physical remains, the ceramics, bottles, bones, reveal all kinds of information their humanity,” explains Reeves. “At Montpelier, the archaeological record is the primary source for understanding the plantation landscape and, in many cases, the lives of the enslaved African Americans who lived here.” Excavations, coupled with insurance maps and documentary evidence from the time period, where available, provide the blueprints for reconstructing the buildings on the landscape, ranging from slave quarters to outbuildings to tobacco barns. Montpelier is actively trying to bring the landscape of the 1820s back to life so visitors can understand the lives of the Madisons and the enslaved community in the fullest and most accurate way possible.

Time-lapse of South Yard reconstruction

The public has the benefit of excavating extremely well-preserved archaeological deposits located on the property. “The historic core contains intact remains of the entire range of the plantation, from the formal grounds of the main house, to the homes of the house and field slaves, to intact yard surfaces, barns, outbuildings, and an overseer’s house, in addition to sites from the Civil War and Post-Emancipation periods,” says Reeves. Following Dolley Madison’s sale of the Montpelier in 1844, all of the homes and work areas of the enslaved community were abandoned, and decayed in place. These sites provide the archaeology department with a wonderful space for the public to learn and participate in the process of interpreting the past, and critically and holistically examining the context of race and liberty in the United States, all under the umbrella of inclusivity and public engagement.

Historic Core

Name for the area that runs from James Madison's Temple to the the field quarters

The discovery of two decorated pipe bowls demonstrates the depth of understanding that archaeologists can uncover. Both pipes were discovered in the South Yard, contextualizing them as materials owned by enslaved laborers. The first was decorated with Masonic inconography. While it was unlikely that the enslaved laborers were members of the Masonic order, the association with Masonic ideals and values would have been understandable. “This is a fraternity that stood for concepts of manhood, justice and equality, and the claiming of craft and skill,” says Brock. “For an enslaved man, forced to labor against his own will for his enslaver, and who is systematically emasculated through his bondage, these ideas likely held a lot of meaning.” Even more obvious is the pipe bowl with the word “Liberty” displayed on it, found inside a slave dwelling. “We talk a lot about the political thought of James Madison, but these pipe bowls demonstrate that the enslaved community had their own ideas and concepts about politics, and that they were political agents as well, despite not having the political rights afforded to others,” Brock notes.

South Yard

Area adjacent to Madison's house where slaves lived

Masonic pipe discovered during a South Yard excavation

Working closely with the descendants and local African American stakeholders adds a critical layer of understanding and responsibility to the archaeology. “Collaborating with the descendants is critical to everything we do on site,” says Brock. “examining the sites where the enslaved community worked and lived carries with it tremendous responsibility, and working side-by-side with the descendants amplifies the  material evidence to support our interpretation of the lives of their ancestors. It was descendants, for example, who taught us about the importance of the Masons within the African American community.” The collaboration is part of a Montpelier-wide effort to engage with the growing Montpelier Descendant Community, and has driven archaeological investigations since the early 2000s when they conducted work with the Gilmore family on the Gilmore Cabin. “This collaboration is critical to our understanding of the past at Montpelier,” reminds Reeves. “The community guides our interpretive efforts, aids in our understanding of slavery and the African American psyche of the time, and gives a different perspective on the lives of the people we are striving the humanize and understand.”

Participating in the archaeological investigations has also been an important part of connecting descendants to their family’s past. The archaeology department leads special excavations for descendants and members of the local African American community, and offers scholarships for African Americans looking to attend public excavations and archaeological field schools. “When the buildings don’t exist, it’s very easy to deny the presence of the people that lived in them,” insists Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. “But when the buildings are here, you’ve got to acknowledge them. Now that these buildings are being put back on the landscape, it’s going to spark a conversation.”

The ability for descendants to come to Montpelier and dig in the very same dirt as their ancestors, and recover the personal household items that slaves bought, used, and discarded provides an intimate connection with the people that made Montpelier. “It gives you a much deeper respect of the people that were not only working to service the people in the mansion, but themselves as well,” says Leontyne Peck, member of the Montpelier Descendant Community upon discovering a fork during a descendant expedition. “Everything had to be made. To me, that was another distinct level of respect.” This discovery of personal items once held by their family members generations before establishes an emotional connection with the past.

Joe McGill participating in an expedition

Leaders in the Field

Montpelier has developed a reputation for carrying out cutting-edge archaeology with unparalleled potential for yielding a wealth of data on a wide array of plantation research topics. “In addition to trying to learn more about the past lives of the Madisons and the African American community, it’s important that we innovate and further our discipline,” demands Reeves. Be it through public engagement programs, professional development opportunities for archaeologists and students, contributing research, or developing modern methodologies for site survey and analysis, the researchers strive to contribute to the field at large. “There are not many places that boast three PhDs in Historical Archaeology, and decades of experience among our staff members,” reminds Chew. “Our archaeology team is making meaningful contributions not only to Montpelier, but to the academic discipline through public archaeology, innovative methods and research, and training future professionals in historical and public engagement.”

Student and young professional development is a vital part of Montpelier’s archaeology program. Montpelier offers an archaeological field school each summer, and has five competitive, full-time, year-long, paid internships available for recent graduates. “Montpelier supported my enthusiasm for working closely with the public, through expeditions and everyday visitors, to teach individuals about the Madison family, slavery, and everyday life on the plantation; and how these topics are still deeply relevant to today’s society,” remembers Ally Campo, former Montpelier Archaeologist and current archaeologist with the POW/MIA accounting agency. “I am honored to have been a part of this dedicated team.” Former staff members continue to contribute to the discipline, using Montpelier data to complete dissertations at top-ranking PhD programs, or moved on to impressive careers at the Smithsonian, National Parks, and Department of Defense. “We provide a chance to work in a museum setting, gain experience in field and laboratory work, conduct independent research, and do public archaeology,” explains Minkoff. “These are unique opportunities and provide great experience for young archaeologists. We love attending conferences to experience many of our former colleagues, interns, and field school students making their own mark as archaeologists.”

Archaeology Field School

It is the public approach to scientific research and engagement with the African American community that sets Montpelier apart. “Concerns about diversity in the discipline of archaeology is a regular topic in our professional organizations, since it is predominately made up of white individuals, many of whom study societies of color,” says Reeves. “Our scholarships for African American students attending our field schools, and engaging with descendants and members of the local African American community are examples of the efforts we are making to ensure our research is engaging and inclusive, and also diversify a profession that is historically monochromatic.”

Building inclusive communities around discovering the past is another area where Montpelier is leading the charge. “Our metal detecting program is one of a kind,” smiles Reeves. “Archaeologists and metal detectorists have historically not worked well together. Archaeologist often view metal detectorists as looters and metal detectorists see archaeologists as elitist academics, but we make it work at Montpelier by combining the metal detectorists’ skill in located metal artifacts with archaeological direction through mapping and scientific recovery methods.” In partnership with metal detecting distributor, MineLab, Montpelier has been recognized as a hallmark for this type of collaboration, and Dr. Reeves has served on panels and task forces organized by the Society for American Archaeology and Society for Historical Archaeology working towards making these relationships more effective, while also discovering new archaeological sites that may be overlooked with typical survey methods.

The programs at Montpelier have been recognized over the years through various grants:

National Geographic Society: research and exploration grant that provided the opportunity to use metal detector surveys to discover remote and ephemeral Madison-era barn and quarters for enslaved field hands.  

The National Endownment for the Humanities funded a three-year, landmark project on the enslaved community whereby Montpelier was able to uncover slave quarters at three different locations on the property. This led to the eventual reconstruction of these structures on the landscape.

Two grants from the National Park Service for the study of the Civil War camps that led to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources creating a historic easement to protect these sites. 

Partnerships with Earthwatch that lead to our citizen-based research programs.

Archaeology Field School participant

Montpelier’s archaeologists are regularly cited by scholars and colleagues as leaders in public archaeology programming, and efforts to diversify the discipline through public programs, field schools, and internships. “Montpelier’s archaeology has raised the bar for interpretation of plantation sites that have traditionally been alienated from descendants of the enslaved,” says Dr. Michael Blakey, NEH Professor of Anthropology, Africana, and American Studies at the College of William and Mary. “Public programs have engaged African Americans in a process by which community members help Montpelier develop honest site interpretations. Montpelier is among the leading historic sites using archaeology to cultivate more plural and democratic perspectives on the past.”

Uncovering the Past to Inform the Present

For each person, the ability to spend a week working in the dirt connects them to the past in ways they likely never expected. “So many people attend our programs for so many reasons,” reminds Reeves. 

“For some, they want to work and live at the site of the father of the Constitution, others want to pay homage to their enslaved ancestors. Others simply want to experience archaeology.”

Over the past 30 years, public archaeology has become a signature element of the Montpelier experience. By making it visible and participatory, visitors not only learn about the past, but they personally connect with it. “They can see and touch the past. Everyone who comes on our program discovers something about the past we didn’t know before. Our job is to give them the context and tools to make those discoveries, but for each person the opportunity to work at a Montpelier site is a uniquely personal experience, and their own moment of discovery,” says Brock. “Doing so connects us all to the past in a tangible, personal, and more meaningful way.”