Thursday, August 23, 2012

Digging Up the Past

I arrived at Montpelier on Sunday night, and started Monday with a lecture about the property and the history of James Madison's home in Orange, Virginia.  I couldn't wait to get to the site where some of Madison's field slaves once lived and worked.  It's because of the work of these and so many other slaves that the new country Madison and Jefferson were creating could prosper.

 Monday afternoon we had our first taste of digging (I was really scraping) the dirt which is red clay in a very large field where, the archaeologists believe, a tobacco barn was located.  Tobacco was a cash crop in colonial times and after the United States formed.  The area we are working in is called the Tobacco Barn Quarter.  Tuesday was the first real day of digging. Elliot, an intern, and I opened a unit, a five by five foot square.

The archaeologists determine the spot where they will dig by various methods.  This dig started after a metal detector survey showed concentrations of metal, mostly nails, indicating structures, like houses or barns, had once been here. We began by using a spade to take off the top layer of sod. Once we were 2-3 inches down we began finding artifacts such as nails (see below), bits of ceramic and glass and pebbles.  Elliot was excited when he thought we found a fragment of aboriginal pottery, but it turned out to be burnt stoneware probably from the Madison years, late 18th century or early 19th century.  We also dug up bits of bone, and even a pig"s tooth! The picture is pretty blurry, but even up close it was hard for me to tell this was a tooth.  The archaeologists here really know what to look for!


In the afternoon we had a tour of the grounds including the slave cemetery, the mansion's cellars and Madison's temple.  What I thought about more and more as I listened to the tour guide is that archaeology helps us to know how communities lived, in this case separate communities: Madison's family and the people he owned.  Their lived were entwined, but separate.  The work of the slave was behind the scene, not shown, but it provided the Madison's with their comfort, their nourishment, and their livlihood.  The world knows Madison's achievements, but what do we know about the enslaved people he depended on?  By doing archaeology and reading pimary source documents like slave diaries, maybe we can fnd out!

On Wednesday I worked in the lab.  This was really fun.  In the morning Laila and I did water screening of some of the material the archaeologists dug up before I got here.

This is me stirring the clay with water so we can screen out any hidden tiny pieces of charred wood, seeds and other small particles that may tell a story of how the enslaved people lived.

The week is almost over.  We've had some difficulties with Internet access, so I'll add more pictures and more of my adventures digging up the past when I get home!

No comments: