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The Stories Artifacts Tell: Health and Well-Being at the Field Quarters

Though we may think of artifacts as things from the past—two hundred year old iron fragments and shards of patinated glass and broken ceramics—every object you surround yourself with is an artifact that just hasn’t gotten to spend any time in the dirt. When we remind ourselves that the things we dig up were once the objects people kept in their homes or on their bodies, cared for and looked after in the same way we cherish our own personal items, we can remember that those iron fragments and shards of glass and broken ceramics are important not because they’re old things, but because they were pieces of someone’s life. When we begin to think of our own things as artifacts, we can begin to see all the stories archaeological artifacts can tell us about the people who once owned them.

Using these artifacts and the stories they tell, we can interpret the day-to-day lives of the individuals they once belonged to—the stories we can tell are personal because the artifacts we study were once personal objects. We can imagine little pieces of people’s lives through the objects they once owned. Wilkie, Laurie A. 2003. The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. Routledge: New York, NY. For instance, we can ask questions about health and well-being—a very personal topic. By investigating artifacts closely and imagining how their owners once might have used them, we can answer the question: how did the inhabitants of the Field Quarters Trickett, Mark A. 2014. By the Harvest Moon’s Light: Excavations of the Field Slave Quarters at the home of James Madison, 2012-2013. take care of their bodies?

Think of the artifacts in your life you consider integral to your body’s health and well-being. Maybe you immediately think of the medicine bottles stored in your bathroom or the first aid kit in the cupboard in the kitchen. What about the tea you drink when you’ve got a cold? Or the saltine crackers you eat to settle your stomach? And speaking of food, think about all the groceries in your fridge. The things you eat every day and the way you construct your diet tell us about how you care for your body. Now let’s move from the kitchen to the bathroom—do you have a toothbrush? Shampoos and soaps? Face washes and lotions? All of these artifacts tell us the ways in which you create and maintain well-being. And what about the less obvious things—have you ever worn a bracelet to help with sea sickness or nausea? Or a crystal necklace? Or maybe even a cross or a saint’s medal? After all, well-being isn’t just physical.

Today, we understand well-being as something that extends beyond the immediate health of our physical body. Mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all factors we consider in our overall well-being. Enslaved individuals living two hundred years ago had similar beliefs. Wilkie, Laurie A. 1996. “Medicinal Teas and Patent Medicines: African-American Women’s Consumer Choices and Ethnomedical Traditions at a Louisiana Plantation.” Southeastern Archaeology 15, no. 2: 119–31. Mrozowski, Stephen A., Maria Franklin, and Leslie Hunt. 2008. “Archaeobotanical Analysis and Interpretations of Enslaved Virginian Plant Use at Rich Neck Plantation (44WB52).” American Antiquity 73, no. 4: 699–728. Let’s explore some artifacts from the Field Quarters whose stories intertwine to paint a picture of the day-to-day practices enslaved individuals created to maintain their bodily health and well-being.

Essence of Peppermint Bottle


One of the only identifiable medicine bottles from the Field Quarters once contained Essence of Peppermint. The liquid inside—peppermint oil combined with alcohol—would have been a pleasant light green color and a common remedy for nausea, stomach aches, bowel pain, headaches, and toothaches. Jones, Olive R. 1981. “Essence of Peppermint, a History of the Medicine and Its Bottle.” Historical Archaeology 15, no. 2: 1–57. On top of that, Essence of Peppermint was often used in combination with other medicines to mask less appealing flavors. Jones 1981, 4 This vial would have been as common in 18th and 19th century medicine cabinets as Tylenol is in ours today. Jones 1981, 2 First manufactured in England and patented there in 1762, by the turn of the 1800s it was being bottled in the US and Europe. Jones 1981, 8 Its uniform packaging made it incredibly recognizable and Americans became so familiar with it that counterfeits produced in the western hemisphere were still stamped with a copy of the English government tax mark. Jones 1981, 4 The one from the Field Quarters is made of non-leaded glass, which suggests that it was one of these later American-made knockoffs. Jones 1981, 21 Imagine a man, tired from a long day’s labor, brewing himself a cup of tea with a drop of Essence of Peppermint in it to settle his upset stomach, or a child wrinkling their nose at a strange smelling medicine and their grandmother mixing it with Essence of Peppermint to make it more appealing.



There were many plant remains recovered at the Field Quarters and some of them might have been grown or gathered for their medicinal properties. Henderson, Samantha J. 2014. “Report on the Paleoethnobotanical materials from the Field Slave Quarter: Use of Local Resources at a 19th Century Slave Quarter.” Mrozowski, Franklin & Hunt 2008 Vaughn, Kelsey. 2017. “Slave Gardens at James Madison’s Montpelier: Food, Freedom, and the Father of the Constitution.” Midwest Archaeological Conference: 1-10. These include: rose, sunflower, forget-me-not, mint, pepper seed, ragweed, dock, pokeweed, strawberry, jimsonweed, sorrel, knotweed, mustard, cinquefoil and more. Combined, these plants treat a variety of injuries and ailments including burns, blisters, inflammation, nose bleeds, cough, sore throat, rheumatism, diarrhea, arthritis pain, chills, fever, and bleeding gums. Extensive evidence, including oral history, tells us that the keepers of this type of knowledge were enslaved women. Daughters learned from their mothers and passed on the knowledge to the next generation. Wilkie 1996, 121 Imagine a mother pressing a compress of dock leaves to a child’s skin to soothe a painful blister, or a young woman listening carefully as her aunts teach her how to identify which plants can treat a sore throat and which can bring down a fever.


Diet and Foodways

We know enslaved individuals all over the US supplemented their meager rations with food they grew, raised, hunted, and collected themselves. Mrozowski, Franklin & Hunt 2008 Imagine how much work goes into maintaining a garden or hunting for food—and all of these things enslaved individuals would have done on top of the labor that the Madisons demanded of them. A complete diet must have been considered very important to overall health. Plants grown at the Field Quarters that may have been integral include corn, peppers, peas, beans, cabbage, and potatoes. Beyond crops, the enslaved population raised chickens and other livestock.


The presence of multiple iron fish hooks tell us that the people who lived there probably ate fish, as well. In 1825, when General Lafayette visited, he noted that the enslaved woman Granny Milly had a personal garden and guests would be sent to visit her and often returned with a potato or fresh egg. Vaughn 2017, 4 Imagine Granny Milly delicately holding a fresh egg in the palm of her hand, chickens clucking around her ankles, or a young man returning home with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder, a fresh catch in the basket in his hand.

Oral Hygiene


Fragments of two bone toothbrushes tell us that individuals living at the Field Quarters recognized oral hygiene as integral to their health. Toothbrushes as we know them today weren’t always what people thought of when it came time to clean their teeth. In most places, teeth cleaning twigs were the primary method of oral hygiene and are still popular today. Toothbrushes like the ones we have now were likely an invention that Europeans adopted from China. Deagan, Kathleen. 2002. Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Imagine a young woman buying this new-fangled toothbrush and using it for the first time as her siblings look on in curiosity, or a child grumbling about having to brush his teeth after dinner.

Personal Adornment Items


Like our modern crystal necklaces and nausea bracelets, jewelry from the Field Quarters may have been worn with well-being in mind. Ogundiran, Akinwumi. 2002. “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, and Cultural Translations of the Atlantic Experience in Yorubaland.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35. No. 2: 427-457. In total, 57 glass beads were found and any number of them may have been worn on the body and considered protection. For example, at a different slave quarter and kitchen at Montpelier, a carnelian ring was found. Carnelian was highly regarded in many areas of West Africa and this ring almost certainly came to the US on the body of an enslaved individual. Handler, Jerome. 1997. “An African-Type Healer/Diviner and his Grave Goods: A Burial from the Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies.”  International Journal of Historical Archaeology 1, no. 2:76-86.  Carnelian is traditionally related to the promotion of healthy organs and blood and was commonly used in powder form as an ingredient in ancient Egyptian medicinal drinks. It was worn as a protection against falling masonry or accidents involving tools. Carnelian is also related to sexuality and fertility. Notably, it was believed to stop excessive menstrual flow or manage menstrual pain. Deagan 2002, 90 When we consider that this ring was likely worn by an enslaved woman working in a kitchen, all sorts of interesting questions surrounding menstruation taboos and food processing come to mind. I mention this artifact because it is likely there were others like it—rings or beads or amulets worn on the bodies of the enslaved community to promote well-being. Imagine a woman sliding a carnelian ring onto her finger before she goes to work in the kitchen, believing the charm will quiet the painful cramps nagging just at the bottom of her belly, or a young man touching the glass bead at his throat for protection before heading out to construct a new barn.


Combined, the stories of these artifacts paint a picture of the little and big things individuals living in the Field Quarters might have done everyday to create and maintain their health and well-being. These small windows into the past—the stories artifacts tell—should remind us of the everyday things we do, of the artifacts we keep in our kitchens and bathrooms and close to our skin to keep us healthy. When you start thinking of the objects you own as artifacts, you begin to realize how many stories they contain and what windows they reveal into your life and in turn, how many stories the artifacts we excavate have to tell.