JMU students have
been digging up the dirt on James Madison’s family for years.
Last summer, they helped make an important discovery on the grounds
of Montpelier, James’ and Dolley’s Orange County plantation.
Montpelier archaeologists and JMU anthropology students unearthed the
foundation of the manor house at Mount Pleasant, James Madison’s
boyhood home, built by his grandfather, Ambrose, in the 1720s.
Mount Pleasant is located a half mile from the Montpelier mansion. James
Madison lived there until he was about 9 years old, when his family
moved into Montpelier.
had long been hunting the elusive structure. They first uncovered large-scale
evidence of the Mount Pleasant site in 1987, with the excavation of
a root cellar and partial excavation of a well. In 1997, archaeologists
and their JMU apprentices discovered two more outbuildings.
Each summer since
then, during the JMU-Montpelier archaeology field school, they have
found tantalizing clues that drew them ever closer to the manor house.
To the untrained
eye, Mount Pleasant’s foundation looks simply like two parallel
rows of stones and a few round holes. But to Montpelier archaeologist
Matt Reeves, it’s a major find. “This is a critical step
in unraveling the history of the Madison family settlement in the Piedmont,”
archaeology team is led by Reeves, JMU anthropology professor Clarence
Geier and senior archaeologist with the National Trust for Historic
Preservation Lynne Lewis. For the past 15 years, JMU anthropology professors
and students have collaborated with National Trust archaeologists to
study the Madison plantation.
From May to July,
Reeves and crew further investigated the cellar of the house —
including a midden, an archaeological term for trash heap — looking
for additional features of the original house. Lying flat on their stomachs,
under the summer sun, cautiously scraping away at the soil with a trowel
in their earthen grids, students have collected bits of stone, brick,
plaster and mortar into stockpiles, which Reeves hangs in mesh bags
in the open air to dry like curing hams.
washed out the silts, sands and clays, we clean it, weigh it and sample
it,” Reeves explains. ‘So far it all appears to be structural.
We examine the mortar and plaster for patterns and impressions, to see
what role it played in the structure.”
samples of the big pieces,” says student assistant Megan Van Ness.
“They can tell us when things were made [or] built, based on what
kind of mortar it is.”
house burned, the cellar collapsed and buried everything. Everything
in here is burned and charred. It got so hot that we’re finding
glass that liquified,” says senior Steve Lotts.
anthropology majors, have sifted gallons of soil through finer and finer
screens and carefully preserved some innocuous treasures. “Charred
wood, buttons, bones, brick, yellow mortar, inclusions, nails, ceramics,
glass,” ticks off senior Melissa Rich. “We actually found
a jawbone of a sheep and the tooth of a pig.”
Some barely recognizable
artifacts offer evidence of some familiar human habits: a tineless fork,
straight pins, pipe stems. “We found a bone comb in our unit,”
says junior Shayla Evans. “All the teeth are broken off. You can
barely see where they were.”
Ceramic chips have
a lot to say about their former owners, says senior Kevin Davenport.
“The chemicals, the application of the glazes, tell us the time
period, whether the ceramics are local or brought in, maybe even who
As filthy students
pick up archaeological techniques and learn how to draw educated conclusions
from their equally filthy professional mentors, however, they might
begin to wonder how much of their enterprise is education and how much
alchemy. “I’m getting good at finding straight pins,”
says junior Kathleen Low. “But Lynn can smell them,” she
says enviously of National Trust archaeologist Lynn Lewis.
Add to these pins
and ceramics other important artifacts associated with the manor house
— wall plaster, nails, door-lock hardware, bottle glass, animal
bones, a fireplace andiron and a piece of candlestick. Based on evidence
gathered thus far, the team believes that the Mount Pleasant complex
burned about 1770, sometime after the Madison family relocated to Montpelier.
After the fire, it ap-pears that Mount Pleasant was abandoned, which
is good news for the archaeologists. Except for agricultural plowing,
the site was undisturbed for decades, leaving many more treasures to
Lewis says, “The
Mount Pleasant site is one of the earliest archaeologically intact plantation
complexes identified in the Virginia Piedmont.”
Geier, the JMU
professor who initiated the JMU-Montpelier archaeology field school,
explains a larger significance. “When settled, the developing
plantation lay on the Virginia Piedmont frontier. Accordingly, the site
has the potential of telling a tale of the difficulties of first carving
out a profitable agricultural landscape from what had been established
forest. The story is enhanced by realizing that it was the fortitude
and business acumen of Francis Madison, James’ grandmother, that
actually grew the farm into the prosperous, diversified plantation that
reached its peak of prosperity under James Madison Sr.”
Dig up more history
about Mount Pleasant at www.montpelier.org/