Main House at Mount Pleasant

Research and Collections
While excavation began in the area of the kitchen and possible slave quarter, Montpelier Foundation archaeologists soon realized that the main house had not been located. As a result, additional survey work was conducted in the Fall of 2000 and Spring 2001 to locate the main house. A combination of survey techniques was used, including three remote sensing survey strategies (magnetometer surveys, ground penetrating radar, and soil resistivity survey) and two sampling surveys conducted on the plow zone of the site (metal detector survey and shovel test pit survey). By combining the results of these surveys, several potential areas were isolated as containing features and cultural deposits. One of the most promising features was found in an area to the east of the detached kitchen. All three remote sensing surveys revealed anomalies in this location, and metal detector surveys revealed a concentration of wrought nails. Shovel test pits revealed burned strata containing charred nails and plaster underlying the plow zone.

Locating the Main House, Summer 2001

Mount Pleasant cellar

Testing of the more promising areas culminated with the discoveries made by the 2001 archaeological field school, co-sponsored by James Madison University and the Montpelier Foundation. Students excavated 5 ft. by 5 ft. units to remove the plow zone and define the features located during survey. The most dramatic feature was found after the plow zone was removed in the area containing burned debris. Excavation units revealed the remains of a 20 ft. by 15 ft. stone-lined cellar. Within the plow zone overlying the cellar, students recovered large amounts of burned plaster, hand-forged nails, ceramics predating the early 1770s, and bottle glass. Cleaning passes taken to define the edge of the cellar feature uncovered dense deposits of artifacts, including high amounts of faunal material. Based on the size of the cellar and concentrations of architectural debris to the west, we believe the structure overlays the partial cellar with its framing sill set on piers. Further excavations to the west revealed a small root cellar adjacent to the stone-lined cellar for the main house. Given this cellar's proximity to the larger cellar, it was likely under the main house as well.

Dispersed 5 ft. by 5 ft. excavation units have been used to excavate the plowzone from Mount Pleasant. This sampling technique is used to reveal features and obtain artifacts for distribution studies. Distribution studies are extremely important in this area of the Piedmont as plowing and subsequent erosion have obscured features in the first foot of soil. As a result, many of these features can only be identified through the presence of artifact scatters within the plow zone - the layer of soil that has been plowed for the past 200 years. Careful excavation and analysis of plow zone allows these features to be identified and recorded.

Excavation of the Main House Cellar (Feature 100), Summer 2002

During the 2002 JMU field school, we completed the excavations of what we believe is the cellar for the main house at Mount Pleasant. This cellar hole measures 25 ft. x 12 ft. and contains the burned remains of the Madison's original dwelling house - the house where James Madison lived as a child. Excavations in the cellar began during the October 2001 work study program. The upper layers of the cellar contained concentrations of ash deposits with a wide diversity of artifacts, including lots of burned plaster, scorched nails, melted window glass, and other finds, including a fireplace and iron. These artifacts recovered by the 2001 work study group gave us the expectation that many more architectural-related hardware items would be recovered during the 2002 JMU field school. Expectations, however, are often not met!

Clay nogging

Lying below these initial ash layers were a series of deposits from the fallen walls of the structure, including hundreds of pounds of wall plaster and clay daub that was used as filler between the framing members of the structure. Within these deposits, while there was a multitude of framing nails, melted window glass, and charred wood, there was very little in the way of trim nails (headless or T-head nails), and a complete lack of hardware items (door latches, hinges, window parts). Below the layer of clay nogging we came across the clay subsoil floor of the cellar, which contained no evidence for occupancy (except for a pile of charred peaches) at the time the structure burned. All of this suggests that prior to the burning of the house (whether accidental or intentional) the structure was stripped of any usable materials - possibly for the construction of the overseer's house or another structure on the property. While the excavations in the cellar have provided us with very little information on the finishing details of the structure, it has provided insights into how the Madisons viewed Mount Pleasant following the abandonment of the site - which was chiefly to mine the main house for any usable materials - possibly as a result of the deteriorated condition of the structure.

F100, excavated completely down to the clay floor Profile showing accumulation of rubble in the ground cellar
Completed excavation of cellar (F100) down to the clay floor. Map and profile through rubble deposits encountered in the main house cellar and entrance.

Following the destruction of the main house, slaves residing in the still extant kitchen used the cellar hole as a trash pit to dump household waste, including dense deposits of hearth ash and food remains (showing in grayish-green in profile, above). These deposits are likely from the inhabitants cleaning out their hearth, which would include daily waste - egg shells, seeds, broken pottery, and bone - thrown into the hearth and removed with the ash on a daily basis.

Reconstructing the Appearance of the Main House

Conjectural image of Mount Pleasant from archaeological evidence and contemporary architectural examples

In the summer of 2006, the Montpelier Archaeology Department consulted with historic architects to reconstruct the appearance of the Madisons' dwelling house. From the archaeology we had information on the following sets of data for the house. First, we knew the house had to span the main cellar hole and the smaller root cellar. All of the evidence recovered from Features 100 and 101 point to the conclusion that the cellar of the Madison dwelling house was partial, with the house extending out from this feature on all sides (except possibly the north side). This is a common treatment for cellars in the 17th and early 18th centuries (Mark Wenger and Willie Graham 2006, personal communication). The importance of this cellar treatment is that the piers for the house had to span the cellar, not be laid atop the stone lining. The chimney was important as its location would determine the orientation of the house, which was generally believed to face the southeast, toward the main road. One aspect of the chimney is that it would most likely be located on an eave (as central chimneys are not common for the Chesapeake) and would be attached to the hall side of the house (since the hall would serve as the most important room). We knew the chimney could not be located on the north end of the house as this would place it squarely in the cellar entrance. This left options of three other sides. We also knew from sheer practicality that the dripline of the roof would not be over the entrance trench. This left the most likely position for the chimney on the south side of the structure. The next question to answer was where, which would need to be determined from room size.

The cellar holes provided the best clues for the orientation and size of the rest of the structure. With increments for room size generally being larger than 8 feet and smaller than 20 feet, this left a 12 foot and 16 foot increment as the most likely size for the various rooms. Given that the hall would have been the largest room in the house, the 16 foot increment was a size that would span the main cellar and allow the main block of the structure to fall short of the small root cellar. The position of a small chamber, placed in a shed off the hall, would allow this smaller feature to be spanned.

Section through Mount Pleasant House and Cellar

Once the room configuration was determined, the dimensions of windows and doors were derived from extant examples of mid-18th century Chesapeake houses. The arrangement of the door was centered on the hall, resulting in the door being off center from the façade of the house. Such irregularity was common in early-18th century homes.

For more details on the main house excavations, see the following report (click here).