Spring 1997

Common Ground
Archaeology Ties JMU and Montpelier Through History

Devin Floyd ('96), assistant Montpelier archaeologist and alumnus of the archaeological field camp, leans against the temple near the Madison mansion. Over the years, field camp students have helped excavate the area surrounding the temple to reveal the extensive ironworks of James Madison Sr. The temple stands over what was once an ice house that served the Madisons.

When Devin Floyd ('96) joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation as assistant Montpelier archaeologist this winter, he became yet another link between Montpelier and JMU. As an alumnus of the annual Montpelier/JMU field school in archaeological method and technique, he is the product of one of the longest and most fruitful connections between the university and the home of James Madison.

"We're in our 11th year," says Clarence Geier, professor of sociology and anthropology, who, since 1989, has sent his students to Montpelier each summer to assist in researching plantation life.

"The field school is not only a natural link between us," Geier says, "but frankly, it's one of the best archaeology sites in the United States. We have a plantation from the 18th century, belonging to the fourth president of the United States, and any historical knowledge about Madison from the plantation comes out of archaeology."

"The beauty of Montpelier," he says, "is that it is an excellent learning environment, where we can go into the field and apply methodology and see it happen."

For six to eight weeks at the field camp each summer, JMU students eat and sleep at Montpelier and dig and scrape away layers of earth as they help discover and build a record of life on the plantation. Their focus is not just on the Madisons' lives, but also on the lives of enslaved African-Americans, indentured servants, employees, merchants and other people with whom plantation residents interacted.

Both Montpelier and JMU benefit, says the National Trust's head archaeologist Lyn Lewis. "It's an opportunity for JMU students in a variety of subjects, and having their assistance helps us. It's a really good give and take," she says. "We've also gotten good feedback from employers about our field school alumni."

Over the field school's past 10 years, students have helped investigate four of the property's 80 historic and prehistoric sites under the supervision of Lewis and the National Trust's Montpelier archaeologist, Scott Parker.

In 1989, students helped reveal the first glimpse of James Madison Sr.'s extensive ironworks, which were discovered surrounding the estate's temple and ice house not far from the mansion.

A 1765 Spanish coin found on the foundation of the mansion's detached kitchen site. Archaeologists say the hole in the coin indicate s that it was no longer used as currency but probably as an ornament.

Off the southeast corner of the mansion, students have been excavating evidence of a detached kitchen dating from the 1760s, the earliest period of the mansion. Among the remains of a brick foundation, chimney and fireplace opening, students have unearthed large quantities of ceramics, glass, bone, oyster shell, nails, brick, mortar and two walkways. South of the kitchen area, field camp students have more recently been uncovering a brick chimney base with back-to-back fireplace openings, which Lewis says might be the remains of slave quarters.

This summer, with JMU and field camp alumnus Floyd in a professional role, students will resume looking for the location and remains of the original 1726 plantation home built by James Madison's grandparents, Ambrose and Frances Madison.

"I'm approaching the work with a different point of view [than I did as a student]," Floyd says. "I get more in-depth into the projects and how the sites relate to the history of the property. I find myself applying every day what I learned in field school."

Although students will continue to dig into the earth inch by inch, retrieve evidence shard by shard and quite literally sift the soil for grains of historical evidence, the point of their work is not so microscopic.

"It's not so much the 'cool' things that we find," Lewis says, "but what they can tell us about the people."

"We're anthropologists, so we deal with people. They just happen to be dead people," quips Parker. Geier is more philosophical: "An archaeologist looks at pieces and, from what is left, tries to recreate the whole."

Links –
Past, Present, and Future

In addition to the archaeological field camp and the shared name of the Madison plantation and JMU magazine, the university and Montpelier share still other links:
  • Retired Vice Adm. Dudley Carlson, whose son, Dudley Ronald "D.R.," wore No. 75 on the Dukes' gridiron from 1987 to 1991, is one of Montpelier's most popular interpreters, the writer of this issue's article about James Madison and the JMU Arboretum's U.S. Constitution Day speaker on Sept. 17, 1997.

  • In 1986, a group of JMU faculty and staff members, including Mark Warner, now of health sciences, Martha Caldwell of the School of Art and Art History, William R. Nelson formerly of political science and Sidney Bland of history, collaborated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to commemorate the then-upcoming bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution at Montpelier.

    The JMU group helped coordinate the bicentennial celebration and write a series of grants that funded the event, the late Carlton Smith's biography of James Madison and a slide show, produced at JMU, that the trust has used ever since with tour groups visiting Montpelier.

  • A new link between JMU and Montpelier may be in the offing. Discussions are under way now between the National Trust and the School of Art and Art History to put JMU art history and interior design interns to work next fall. Plans for possible art student involvement are being explored by the art school's head, Cole Welter, faculty members Maurie McInnis and William Tate and the National Trust's executive director, Kathleen Mullins. "This is another great opportunity for students to get real-world experience," McInnis says.

    A combination of external funding and grants will be sought for the partnership, which might allow students to help in historical investigation and interpretation, conduct supervised research into the Madison family and help with the design of displays, exhibits and supporting materials that relate to plantation life.

    Interior design students could be involved in making drawings of the mansion's spaces to help visitors better understand the changes that occurred during different periods of the mansion's history.

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