Excavations at the Quarter for Enslaved Artisans

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Abstract: In 2010, the Archaeology Department of The Montpelier Foundation conducted excavations in an area 250 ft south of the Montpelier mansion, at a site designated the Stable Quarter.  The site includes the previous setting of a Madison-era house where enslaved African-American men and women resided.  The site was termed the Stable Quarter due to its relative proximity to the previous location of a Madison-era stable.  The Stable Quarter 2010 project is a component of the Montpelier Mansion archaeological site (44OR-249) located in Orange County, Virginia.

Results of the 2010 project include identification of late 18th- and early 19th-century deposits, including features associated with a house where enslaved African-American individuals resided.  Evidence suggests the structure was home to an extended family including female and male members.  As will be detailed in this report, the structure was a 16 by 20 ft log-cabin with two equally sized rooms and a clay floor.  The structure is believed to have been built during the 1790s and occupied until sometime during the 1830s.  The structure may have remained standing in an unoccupied state for some time, until its eventual removal in the late 1840s or early 1850s by a later Montpelier owner, Benjamin Thornton.  Especially significant features include intact portions of two brick hearths and a subfloor storage pit within the interior of the structure.  Other principal features include intact and in situ wood fragments from some of the cabin’s logs as well as features potentially related to door and interior partition locations.   Other notable finds include several clay borrow pits located around the perimeter of the cabin.  These borrow pits were filled with large amounts of occupation refuse including food remains, broken dishes and glassware, metal hardware, and decorative and personal items.  All these materials were used and discarded by the occupants of the cabin.  Linear features suggestive of garden rows were encountered near the structure, potentially indicating a small garden plot. 

Results of the Stable Quarter 2010 project will contribute to a separate, future study funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant (see Reeves 2010).  These excavations will begin during the Spring of 2011 and continue for three years.  Utilizing a house-centered excavation strategy, this upcoming study will endeavor to provide insight into the lives of enslaved individuals at the plantation during the late-18th and early-19th century.  Likewise, the explication of individual, household, and community lifeways was the primary goal of the Stable Quarter 2010 investigation.  The well-preserved archaeological deposits at this site yielded significant features and copious artifacts, and much has been learned with regard to the household residing at this location.  Archaeological data provide evidence regarding such diverse topics as foodstuff consumption, personal taste in acquisition of particular durable goods, social organization, expression of aesthetic inclinations, and degree of personal autonomy within the confines of enslavement.  Additionally, archaeological analysis regarding specific structural details will be essential in any attempts to represent the cabin on the current landscape, with possibilities ranging from interpretive signage to full-scale reconstruction.  Such interpretive undertakings are vital in the representation of the lives of the African-American community once residing at the Montpelier plantation.