Topic ID #26620 - posted 1/29/2013 5:08 PM

Montpelier Historical Archaeology Field School (Montpelier Station, Virginia, USA) 2013


Montpelier in Orange, VA, is the lifelong home of James Madison, Jr., fourth present of the United States and acknowledged by his peers as the "Father of the Constitution."  While Madison's service to his country would frequently take him from his beloved Montpelier, he would return following his retirement from the Continental Congress, and during his service as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson would frequently return to Montpelier during the "malarial months" of summer.  Finally, after two terms of service as president, Madison, Jr. retired to a much-changed Montpelier where he would become known as the "Old Sage of Montpelier."  For the next two decades, visitors would be drawn to Montpelier not only to visit Madison, but to enjoy the famous hospitality of Dolley Madison, the first First Lady. 

On Constitution Day, 2008, James Madison's Montpelier celebrated the exterior restoration of the house and announced the "Presidential Detective Story," a program of research that would aim to not only restore the furnishings of the interior of the mansion but look at Madison in the context of 19th-century planter society--as man, planter, and slave owner.  The surveys and excavations over the past five years have expanded our understanding of slavery and plantation life at Montpelier, identifying numerous slave quarters across the property, many of which were occupied by Confederate cavalry during the Civil War.  Most recently, excavations have focused on the domestic slave quarters of the South Yard, the principal stable of the 18th-19th century, and the "Stable Quarter," a home for slaves skilled in carpentry, brick-laying, horse-tending and other skills vital to the operation of a plantation.  

In 2010/2011, the Montpelier Archaeology Department secured a three-year NEH grant to study the enslaved population of the plantation by contrasting the lives of three different communities of slaves whose experience may shed light not only on slavery at Montpelier but also of slavery in Virginia as a whole.  The research focuses around three well preserved and distinct locations: 
  • The South Yard, or the location of the homes for the enslaved domestic servants.  Excavations in the 1990s, and more recently in 2008 and 2011, have revealed structural evidence for three pier-raised, timber-frame duplex structures for six households, a detached kitchen, and two ground-sunk smokehouses.  Substantial quantities of material goods were recovered from this complex of buildings, and the structures themselves contained masonry chimneys and glazed windows.
  • The Field Slave Quarters of the Tobacco Barn Quarter. Initial survey of this area revealed a quantifiable difference between access to material goods recovered, seemingly substantiating the stereotype perpetuated by 18th/19th-century planters that domestic slaves had a higher quality of life (something that historians have show is not the case).  Structures are likely to be log cabins with stick-and-mud chimneys, little or no glazed windows, and clay floors.
  • The Stable Quarter Complex, a liminal area divided by boundaries both physical (fence lines) and conceptual (organization of work and living areas) that lies between the South yard and the Field Slave Quarters.  Survey has revealed that although the material cultural remains are similar to those of the South Yard, the structures themselves are more similar to those presumed in the Tobacco Barn Quarter.
By contrasting the purportedly polar opposites of domestic and field slave domiciles with those of the liminal Stable Quarter Complex, we hope to develop and understanding of the informal trading networks, the organization of domestic work to support the needs of individual households, and the means by which privacy within the home place could be created outside of the pervasive influence and surveillance of plantation owners.


In 2012 the Montpelier Archaeology Department started an in-depth investigation of the Field Slave Quarters initially identified in mitigation ahead of the construction of its new Visitor Center.  The investigations were limited by the project scope, but suggested the presence of a number of homes for enslaved field laborers.  As the third phase of the NEH-funded investigations, returned to these quarters and an additional site located nearby through a combination of metal detector and shovel test-pit survey that had revealed what appeared to be the presence of another 4-5 quarters and related structures.  

Over the course of the field season, excavators from the historical archaeology field schools and the volunteers programs revealed some incredible finds and features.  The field quarters at the so-called "North Site" were revealed to be a complex of barns for the fire-curing of tobacco that, at some point, served as short-term domestic accommodation until it once again changed into a wheat-threshing barn.  At the "South Site," student archaeologists unearthed borrow pits, a sheet midden, and other features that indicate the presence of structures but we have yet to find definitive evidence.  (The elusive hearth!)  Additional geophysical survey and shovel test-pits have provided further information to suggest the likely locations of the structures themselves.

In 2013, students, volunteers, and interns will return to the "South Site" to excavate these domestic features and look for the physical evidence of the structures themselves.  During the field school students will be exposed to different excavation strategies, rigorous site document, artifact identification, and site formation processes.  In addition, as a historic property open to the public, students will be involved in explaining the site and representing archaeology to visitors.


James Madison's Montpelier offers a number of program opportunities for students and interested volunteers, including for-credit and no-credit field schools, week-long excavation programs, and opportunities for paid and un-paid internships.

Historical Archaeology Field Schools (For Credit)
Two separate field school programs are run through James Madison’s Montpelier: 
  • James Madison University: May 13 - June 14, 2013
  • SUNY Plattsburgh: July 1 - July 26, 2013
Each program is accredited through the sponsoring institution (see below) and shares the same syllabus.  You can find more information on the programs and syllabus at the following link:

The field program itself is comprised of four weeks of excavation coupled with time spent in the laboratory learning fundamental techniques in post-excavation analysis. Each week of the field program is coupled with a thematic series of lectures designed to highlight specific methodological issues:
  • Week 1. 18th and 19th century artifacts—identification, chronology, and status.
  • Week 2. Stratigraphy and Soils—the use and identification of archaeological strata to determine site chronology and depositional history.
  • Week 3. Site Stratum—methodological techniques for analyzing and interpreting site function.
  • Week 4. The Archaeological Assemblage—interpreting an archaeological site from the perspective of the assemblage.
Each week is associated with a brief “weekly project” that aims to reinforce the application of the technique and, along with assessment of field and laboratory performance, provides the primary assessment of the field school. 

A summary of the James Madison University field school is provided, below: 
  • Credits: 4 or 5.
  • Schedule: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Lectures and site visits are in addition to this.
  • Principal Contact: mreeves {at} montpelier {dot} org
  • JMU Faculty: Professor Clarence Geier (Faculty Instructor), Dr. Matthew Reeves, Dr. Mark A. Trickett.
For the SUNY Plattsburgh field school:
  • Credits 6.
  • Schedule: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Lectures and site visits are in addition to this.
  • Principal Contact: mreeves {at} montpelier {dot} org
  • SUNY Plattsburgh Faculty: Professor James Armstrong, Dr. Matthew Reeves (Faculty Instructor).
Tuition costs for both field schools are TBA, but are estimated at this juncture to be approximately $1,400.  There are additional expenses for accommodation and equipment (~$350-400).

Historical Archaeology Field Schools (No Credit)
The Montpelier Archaeology Department also offers no-credit field school opportunities for students wishing to expand their experience base or get involved with the unique sites at James Madison's Montpelier.  These take place at the same time as the for-credit courses (above) and are limited only by the number of students participating in the for-credit field school.

Costs for no-credit field schools are for accommodation and equipment, and during the field school no-credit students are expected to engage in the field school curriculum.

Archaeology Expeditions (Week-Long Courses)
For those wishing to explore archaeology at Montpelier without dedicating four weeks, the Montpelier Archaeology Department offers the Archaeology Expeditions.  These week-long programs are fee-based and more information can be found at the following link:


Field school participants are accommodated in a refurbished 19th-century house set in several acres of private land.  Arlington house has two full kitchens and set of kitchen supplies and applies, though students are required to provide their own meals.  Accommodation is "dormitory style" and includes 8 bedrooms and 5 full bathrooms.

Additional facilities include a high-efficiency washer/dryer, satellite television, and wired satellite internet (please note that there is a Fair Use Policy enforced by the ISP).  An emergency telephone line is included, allowing incoming and outgoing (local only) calls, so students wishing to make long-distance calls with the phone will need a calling card.  Cell reception is patchy.

Cost: $350 for the duration of the field school, which includes an archaeological equipment kit.  There is an additional $50 housing fee that is refunded if fair wear/tear damage is reported, but a proportion will be remaindered if damage is unreported.


We maintain an active intern program for students who have successfully completed an archaeological field school, most commonly the Montpelier Historical Archaeology Field School.  Paid internships are offered on a limited and competitive basis and are based on both field school performance and assessment by the archaeological staff.  Unpaid internships are also offered.  Both paid and unpaid internships require a 2-3 week period of assessment (commonly a Montpelier field school) before the internship can be confirmed.  This assessment period is unpaid.

All applicants for internships should provide a cover letter and up-to-date resume to Dr. Reeves, preferably before the field school.  For more information on internships, please click on the following link:


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