Let’s face it. The foundation of the Mount Pleasant manor house doesn’t look like much, just a few depressions in the earth, except to Montpelier archaeologists and their JMU student apprentices, who have unearthed all kinds of signs of life and human industry. Megan Van Ness and Shayla Evans sift soil through fine screens in search of treasures. Kathleen Low doesn’t even look up to herald her new find. She simply awaits a professional opinion.

Digging Up Dirt on the Madisons

JMU students help find the original Mount Pleasant manor home at Montpelier

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.

Archaeologists 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,” he says.

Montpelier’s 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.

“After we’ve 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.”

“We keep 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.”

“When the 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.

Students, all 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 used them.”

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 be found.

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/

Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu