Tag Archives: Montpelier

Public History Series: Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology is not a complicated subject.  It is much like regular archaeology except it involves digging at historic sites.  The key with historical archaeology is looking for the artifacts left behind by those who occupied the land.

Historical Archaeology can be pretty technical.  Like typical archaeology, digging is done in squares.  Artifacts are carefully removed and documented as to their proximity to buildings and landscape, but also their depth in the ground.  The depth is specifically important because it is possible to use that depth to determine its age.  Stratigraphy is a branch of geology used to determine the age of layers within the soil.

The artifacts found can also help in understanding who was there and when.  One of the most common and widely studied artifacts are pipe stems.  It sound strange, but pipe stems can help date a site to within a few years.  This then brings in another key term: terminus post quem.   This Latin term roughly translate to “the date after which.”  It essentially means that nothing found in a specific layer can be older than the oldest artifact.  While this all sounds complicated, it is rather simple.  If you find three artifacts and Artifact 1 is from 1850, Artifact 2 is from 1870, and Artifacts 3 is from 1905, then we know the site cannot be older than 1850.  This is true for more than historical archaeology.  This is also true when determining the age of a house by looking at the specific building materials and construction techniques.

Archaeology at Montpelier

Historical archaeology is important because it uncovers artifacts of everyday life as well as bones of animals.  Extensive studies have been done on plantations in the South, and James Deetz found, in his book In Small Things Forgotten, that slaves ate different types of meats.  This has been determined by studying the remains of animals near slave cabins.

Historical archaeology is ongoing at many sites within the United States.  One project that I am familiar with takes place at Montpelier.  They are excavating in search for items from the Madison era.  Things have been discovered include: remnants of slave cabins, kitchens, and artifacts once owned by the slaves on the property.  The work is ongoing as the property at Montpelier is quite large.

There is a need for students to work on these projects.  Montpelier has a summer internship program that allows college age students to assist with the archaeological projects.  While not all of them are public historians, several are.  It is a great opportunity to do field work and not spend all the time in an archive or museum.  It is one of the most exciting sub-disciplines within public history.


NOTE:  This is the eighth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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A Day with the Presidents

Saturday, I was finally able to get away form Harrisonburg for the day and visit some historic sites.  I will describe where I went, give a little history, and share some of my photographs from the day.

1.  James Madison’s Montpelier

Being a student at James Madison University, it almost seems like a requirement to visit his home.  Montpelier is about a hour from Harrisonburg which made for a nice drive over the Blueridge Mountains.  Montpelier was built by James Madison Sr. in the early 18th century.  After James Madison Jr. married Dolley, the house was expanded and converted into a duplex.  James Madison’s parents lived on the South end of the house and Madison, Dolley and Dolley’s young son lived on the North end.  After the death of his father, Madison expanded the house again and made it a single residence home.  Madison’s mother would continue to live in the house in 1826.  Madison died in 1836 and Dolley lived in the house until her death.  The house changed hands several times after Dolley’s death before the duPont family bought it.  The duPont’s added on to the house and nearly tripled the square footage.  The home remained in the duPont family until 1983 when it was turned over The Montpelier Foundation.

Today, the house has been restored to it appearance at Dolley’s death.  The duPont’s additions were torn off and the house project was completed in 2008.  Today, the foundation is working on purchasing the original furnishings of Montpelier.  In addition, they are working on wallpapering the home.  Dolley only wallpapered three rooms and one has been restored.  The dining room was re-wallpapered two weeks ago and they are palling on wallpapering the drawing room in a few weeks.  There are also several archaeological digs taking place and many items have been uncovered that belonged to the Madison family and their slaves.  As the work continues, Montpelier will only become a more popular stop for tourists.

2.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

What is there to say about Monticello?  Everyone knows something about it.  Weather it is the distinct architectural styling or Jefferson’s collections and inventions, Monticello is an extremely popular tourist destination.  Monticello is located atop a 867 feet peak overlooking Charlottesville.  What is not well known is that Jefferson was given an option when his father died.  He was given a choice between land in the valley and the mountain, and he chose the Montpelier.  The views from Monticello are spectacular!

3. James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland

Most people, myself included, do not realize that Jefferson and Monroe were neighbors.   Monroe purchased the land adjacent to Monticello at the request of Jefferson.  Monroe purchased the land as a second home.  Monroe’s primary residence was Oak Hill which was closer to D.C.  Ash Lawn was used as a source of income and operated as a farm with several slaves, however, Monroe left the White House $75,000 in debt.  He placed Ash Lawn-Highland and Oak Hill on the market.  Ash Lawn sold two days after the death of Jefferson.  Ash Lawn is a modest home when compared to Montpelier and Monticello, but Monroe lived in opulence at Oak Hill.

I went to all three homes in one day and learned a lot about each president.  I found it interesting that presidents 3, 4, and 5 lived within 30 miles of each other and their connections go beyond being former Presidents of the United States.  Prior to becoming president, Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State and Monroe was Secretaries of State and War for Madison.  In addition, Monroe was tutored by Jefferson and encouraged by him to become a lawyer.

After visiting all three homes I discovered a few things about each president.  Madison was modest, Jefferson had to have the newest and greatest, and Monroe strived to keep up with both of them.  As a result, Monroe was in deep debt at one point of his life.  Of the three homes, I would prefer Montpelier.  To be fair, Monticello is very impressive, but I could not picture myself living there.  It was more like a laboratory than a home.  It also does not help that there were 100s of people at Monticello and a new tour starts every 5 minutes.  There were only about 40 people at Montpelier which made it feel more comfortable.

I really look forward to visiting Mt. Vernon and other sites in Virginia and will discuss them as I do.  I apologize for not posting anything last week and will start describing my courses next week.  Until then…


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