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New evidence contributes to unprecedented portrait of enslaved life at James Madison's Montpelier
Excavations took place at four venues across the plantation.
ORANGE, VA.- The Montpelier Foundation today announced findings from new archaeological excavations at the lifelong home of James Madison – Father of the Constitution, Architect of the Bill of Rights, and Fourth President of the United States. Discovered by teams of professional archaeology staff, students and visitors participating in special “Archaeology Expeditions,” two newly revealed subfloor pits provide an initial footprint for field slave quarters on the Montpelier landscape.

“Montpelier is unique among archaeological sites in the United States with regards to our ability to recreate and visualize the experience of enslaved life,” said Matthew Reeves, Ph.D., Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at James Madison’s Montpelier. “Because the fields have lain fallow since Madison’s time, the sites we are discovering are virtually undisturbed. We are meticulously documenting available evidence from the sites so we can begin to reconstruct the farm in a way that will authentically represent the complexity of life on the plantation.”

The latest discoveries serve as the capstone to excavations and ongoing interpretation funded by a four-year Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The initiative is providing a better understanding of slave life in the early 19th-century Virginia Piedmont region and places Montpelier’s enslaved community into the larger Atlantic history of the African Diaspora, in comparison with other sites in the Chesapeake and Caribbean.

Excavations took place at four venues across the plantation: the Stable Quarter (homes for enslaved livestock handlers, excavated in 2010), the South Yard (homes for house slaves, excavated in 2011), the Tobacco Barn Quarter (homes for enslaved field laborers, excavated in 2012), and the Field Quarter (homes for enslaved field laborers, excavated in 2013). The four residential locations provide a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the conditions of chattel slavery of the period. Differences and similarities between these locations – particularly architectural styles and household goods such as ceramics, glassware, and clothing items – reflect the relationship of individual households to each other, the community to which they belong, their relationship to the overarching plantation complex, and regional patterns of both market access and cultural traditions. Deposits from these sites date to Madison’s retirement years, from the late 1810s through the 1830s.

“The Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is helping our archaeology team achieve two key goals at Montpelier,” continued Reeves. “In addition to making great strides in our interpretative efforts to reconstruct the landscape, we have involved the public at-large, metal detectorists, and the next generation of professional archaeologists representing several acclaimed university programs. These ‘Citizen Scientists’ are a hallmark of our commitment to engaging the public in our work at Montpelier and key contributors to our success.”

The excavation site at the Field Quarter will remain open and active through mid-August.





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