Invisible Lives: Hunting for Slave Quarters at Montpelier

posted on: September 12, 2012

Part IV: The Tobacco Field: Archaeology 101

On a sunny, but not too hot morning, the entire team gathers on the Tobacco Field. There are six of us volunteers, five interns who obtain additional field experience before entering graduate school, three field staff who have completed some graduate school in archaeology, and three permanent archaeologists: one in charge of the lab, one a forensic expert, and one in charge of the archaeology department who oversaw the restoration of the mansion itself. We – the interns and volunteers—stay in a house filled with dormitories.  Mine has seven beds, but I share only with one woman, an elementary school teacher.

Hundreds of slaves lived and worked on this land since 1720’s, but only a handful of Madisons; during his presidency, there were 2 Madisons and 100 slaves.

The location and sizes of the dwellings of the house slaves and those who worked in the crafts industries (blacksmithing, carpentry, etc.) have been located.  Framing had been completed for the dwelling of those who worked a few feet from the mansion. We’re searching for the homes of the field slaves.  The site, called the tobacco quarter, abbreviated as TBQ, was the original land that had been cleared for Ambrose Madison (James’ grandfather) by ten slaves and an overseer who spent a decade cutting down the trees, getting rid of the stumps, turning over the soil, and building a house for him. It was the labor of these slaves that allowed Ambrose Madison to claim ownership.  It was planted with tobacco until tobacco used up the soil.  After 1800, the parcel was used as the dwelling place for the field slaves.


Blue flag markers poke from the ground where metal has been located. This spring, the archeologist thought they had found a dwelling, but, alas, it turned out to be a storage shed for a threshing machine with hand made iron teeth.  What is called the South Site is the next most promising place.  So far, lots of artifacts have been found, and a barrow pit where people dug out clay to wedge between logs in the dwellings and to prevent the wooden chimneys from catching fire.  Afterward, it was used for trash.  But no evidence of postholes to support a dwelling, or a hearth has been found.

The site is littered with 5 x5 ft squares that are dug down 6-8 inches.  The archeologist block out squares, dig through sod, roots, cobbles of rocks, artifacts and clay soil to find evidence of dwellings.  Some show the cobbles of rocks, some only the dark red brown earth, some with hole dug in the middle that is a shovel test.

It’s 7:30 on a Monday morning and I’m partnered up with Sam, one of the staff. She is completing her masters in biological archeology. A baseball cap firmly on her head, her ponytail flows through the space in the back. I’m given a trowel that looks more like an implement for plaster or mudding when dry walling than any gardening tool.

We kneel on kneepads, and scrape away topsoil, struggling against roots. As the day heats and the sun rises, we set up tents to shade us.  It is a cooler week in Virginia than it is in Michigan; the arch warnings about the heat and blasting sun have been in vain. We scoop the dirt into dustpans and pour it into buckets, carry them to the screening house, shake the dirt through a ¼ inch mesh hardware cloth, examine the stuff that doesn’t go through the screen. It’s mostly bulbs like a wild onion and pebbles.  We do that for 4 hours.

I find a small piece of ceramic, half the size of my pinkie nail, with a bright blue pattern on one side.  List it and bag it. The bag lists the site, the day, the square’s designated number, the level of dirt, and Sam’s and my initials.

The next day, we return to the same square, red dirt and white straggles of roots, a hole in the middle where the shovel test was made.

“Let’s clean it out and take its picture,” Sam says.  So we scrape it with curving motions of our trowels, scoop the dirt, and get a ladder, a measuring stick to discover depth of the soil, camera, and a chalk board to list the numbers of this particular square, date, the layer.  Nothing but red dirt, and a sprig of green grass over the hole.

We start in again. My knees, hips, shoulders and wrists complain as I resume the crouched position. Then, low and behold a rock. A beautiful rock of quartz. One of the cobbles.  The people who lived here had small houses, 16X16, that were used primarily for sleeping. All the work was done outside.  Stones kept everything from getting too muddy, so there are rocks (not gravel, but cobblestones) placed outside their homes. Stones were also used for the hearth. Within minutes I find a piece of ceramic, white, with a blue flower, and a rim on the other side. And then a few minutes later, another one, and they actually mend together.  I’m thrilled. Now these pieces are not very big, maybe a half inch, but a half inch of ceramics from 1820’s is much more exciting than endless red dirt.

Then a perfect triangle of green glass. A few minutes later, a piece of stoneware pottery in a greenish glaze. Now this is big enough to recognize as the curve of the lip of a bowl or pitcher. Almost as big as the palm of my hand.

As the day wears on, kneeling on kneepads, bent over a 5 foot square of red dirt, we uncover more cobbles, eleven more pieces of the stoneware ceramic, and more glass. Each find is a treasure unearthed from the dirt, as though a message from the past. We find nails, bent broken, and burned.  Enslaved people were responsible for building their own homes, they were given nails handmade in the craft section.  They were given flax or cotton to weave and sew their own clothes.

So we scrape, and sift, and there are rocks, and weeds.  More glass, more ceramics, scads of nails.  We take it down another layer.  Then there’s a big discussion whether we should continue.  The pattern of the cobbles is used to learn where the people lived. How large their houses, how many, what they ate, how many people lived in each house, how they were made, etc.  The bits of ceramics and glass only offer a small part of the picture and aren’t what they seem. For example, a beautiful but broken dish. Was it given to the slave as a present because it was only slightly chipped and then later broken? Or did the slave break it, and then try to hide the accident from the mistress?  A secret wine bottle stash in the kitchen – was it a way to hide a bottle of wine and then pick it up on the way home?  It was filled with layers of ashes and dirt.  Maybe it was part of a ritual ceremony?  No one knows.

At the end of the day we put a gallon of unscreened soil in a special bag and label it with the site, and square name, date, level of soil, and our initials.

Tomorrow I find out if we continue with that square or if we open up a new one. I am attached to continuing in this one, hunting for more broken bits, but I may never see the artifacts I found again, and the earth may not be worked to discover if the rest of the pieces of the stoneware bowl are uncovered. Maybe we will dig finding additional artifacts.  Maybe we will open up the earth in another square to see what secrets treasures the green sod hides.

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