"Dolley's Midden" (1817-1844)

Research & Collections

Lying directly outside of the 19th-century formal yard, or curtilage, “Dolley’s Midden” is the domestic trash pit from the Retirement Years.  Partially excavated in 2007, this site has given archaeologists insight into the everyday hospitality and dining practices of James and Dolley Madison.

Contained within the trash dump was literally thousands of artifacts—ceramic sherds, wine and champagne bottle shards, animal bone, and oyster shell.  From these remains, archaeologists are able to reconstruct the types of plates and teacups found in Madison’s ceramic cupboard, and even what cuts of meat they served their guests.  Indeed, all of the meat seen in the trash dump was of young cow and pig—clear indication that it was a deposit associated with primary meat consumption, or the kind one would expect to find after one of Dolley’s famous barbeques.

In helping define the Madison table wares and every day trash, “Dolley’s Midden” also helps as archaeologists look at the domestic trash from the homes of the enslaved community across Montpelier.  Ceramics that do not show up in Madison contexts—specifically hand-painted teawares—have been definitively identified as belonging to slave households.  By studying these ceramics, archaeologists are able to advance our understanding of the daily lives of Montpelier’s enslaved community.

Today, much of the trash from the trash dump lies buried and preserved underneath the duPont road that extends from the mansion down to the Archaeology Laboratory.

This picture is taken from the east showing the location of the site on the landscape. The trash deposit is called "Dolley's Midden" based on the majority of the artifacts originating from the Madisons' dining room table.  The trash deposit was used from 1817 until 1836 and runs below the road leading to the archaeology lab which was constructed by the duPonts. The majority of the artifacts likely lie below the 1908 road fill and will await future excavations.

This picture shows the artifacts recovered by removing several inches of soil from one 5’ by 5’ square unit.  Artifacts recovered include wine bottle necks and bases, bottled glass, a variety of ceramics, animal bone and oyster shells. The analysis and restoration of these items have been invaluable for discovering how the Madisons’ entertained their guests at the dining room table.  In addition, many of the Madisons’ ceramics and glassware have been recovered in the South Yard and Stable Quarter slave quarters. The recovery of these items in Dolley’s Midden has assisted archaeologists to understand which ceramics belonged to the enslaved households and those used by the Madisons.