Excavation at Montpelier’s Field Slave Site Was a Moving Experience.

March 17, 2013 at 1:06 am  •  Posted in Archaeology Work by

Archaeological Dig

Elliot removing layers at the field slave site

Continued from previous post…. Can this program get any better?  Even though a few of the detectorists are nursing sore muscles, moaning at the early mornings and trying to figure out how to plan apparel for 28F mornings and 60F afternoons, we are rapidly getting into archaeological rhythm.  (We’re only half-joking when we say the Arlington house needs a candy dish full of Motrin!)

On Thursday the detector stayed in the house and I spent some of the day working in the lab and on the archaeological site, learning how the finds are dug, screened, cataloged and interpreted.  I am also humbled by how hard this work really is.

This site is at the base of Chicken Mountain and was initially identified by metal detector survey which, of course, allows a large area to be covered quickly – but only indicated metallic objects. Based on the scatter of metal, the team subsequently excavated a shovel test-pit survey on a 10-foot grid, and the data was compared.  The two patterns correlated quite well, further endorsing the viability of metal detecting for site definition activities.

Our windswept dig site

Our windswept dig site

With Shovel Test Pits (STPs) soil is sifted and the artifacts recovered, leading to a decision process about excavation.  According to Matt, it took about 3 days for the metal detector survey, and three weeks to cover the same area with the shovel test-pits. It seems to me that embracing skilled detectorists during site surveys can reap very tangible rewards, and save a lot of time.  The correlation between the STP data and the detector data become very clear when you look at it on the lab’s heatmap software.  When I saw this, I felt suddenly quite useful to helping to document the history of our country, one nail at a time.

unitstrowelSo, with my shiny new trowel and well-medicated muscles, I spent time at this site Thursday.  The units were positioned based on evidence, and extended in a checkerboard style as long as artifacts are discovered.  Rich deposits may warrant a full excavation of all squares, resulting in the entire area having layers removed, screened and inspected.

Elliot patiently showed me the methodology, also pointing out that breaking a survey string means you must buy a drink for your unit-mate and collapsing a unit wall meant a round for the entire team.  As I hobbled and stumbled through the site, I was sure to come out of this little experiment a bit poorer.  Aside from an embarrassing head whack on the sifting roof (“pwang!”) I came out unscathed.   (Later on, my friend Jim showed the team how to use the Garrett pinpointer to scan the archaeological units between scrapes, showing yet another transfer of knowledge.)

This thin copper coin was found at the site.

This thin copper coin was found at the site.

I spent some time removing layers from one unit and it takes some getting used to.  You must find ways to make the trowel work for you, not against you.  Elliot was ever encouraging but I’m sure my half of the unit looked like it was dug by a grub-hunting skunk.  I noticed he had two buckets for every one of mine.  Perhaps I should stick to detecting?

courtesy Richmond History Center

Stick and Mud Servant’s Huts

….The quarters for the field slaves were likely built of logs, with clay floors, stick-and-mud chimneys, and simple wooden shutters. Archaeological evidence suggests that, aside from nails and door hardware, the Madisons provided little resources for slaves to build these simple structures. The homes of the field slaves stand in marked contrast to the house slaves’ homes directly in sight of the Montpelier mansion….
from: Montpelier’s Intro to Archaeology Guide (PDF)


Dolly Madison’s China Hand-Me-Downs

But after a few bucket loads, Elliot and I found pieces of blue Madison era pottery on the screen – very cool.  Often the found china was from Dolly Madison’s collection, after it was possibly chipped and given to the slaves (or pulled by them from trash bound for the dump.)  Besides not having your freedom and potentially being split from your family at any time, I cannot imagine living in a drafty handmade shack on this hill.  It had a steady gale and we, with our high-tech under-armor and layers still came away with wind burns after just a few hours of work.

See this excellent post on Slave Quarters Archaeology by Terry P Brock.

Next:  Wrapping up and looking forward


More posts on my Montpelier Experience here:


Here’s a video from Ron Guinazzo taken in the session after us:

Related posts:


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  2. Byron / March 17, 2013 at 3:19 am /

    I’ve been following the progress of your week at Montpelier with much interest and a tinge of envy. It looks to have been a great experience. Congratulations on the opportunity!

    I hope your time with the archeologists may have given you some insight into a question that has been plaguing me since taking up detecting. The comment you related from the archeologist who said something to the effect that a detectorist removing an artifact from its resting place is “very sad” brings a fine point to that question in my mind.

    I don’t know the particular context of the comment from that archeologist, but it seems to me that some range of that sentiment, from sadness to full on anger, is evoked regardless of the context from which the proverbial detectorist removes a relic.

    So, to the question, and it is two-fold. First, do archeologists view any and all sites in the US as archeologically important? The laws and lobbying seem to argue for this view. And second (assuming the answer to the first part is ‘yes’), what value do archeologists see in the ‘relics’ of say an 1840’s homestead in rural MO, or one of the well documented, yet non-major/non-significant Civil War skirmish sites? And how to do they see this as valuable to society?

    My hope is that your experiences this week can shed light on their mindset.

    The value of Montpelier is obvious, as is the value of sites that most educated and remotely historically inclined Americans would recognize as historically significant. What is difficult to grasp is the value to society of the exploration of sites not connected with historically significant people or events.

    I hope you can clear up some of my ignorance on this topic.

    If the work of archeology devolves to being of value only to archeologists, and of little or no consequence to society, then that work is the equivalent of that of the detectorist who researches a skirmish site and recovers a three ringer…ultimately it is self gratification. The fact that the detectorist is able to research such a site and accurately locate it is a telling fact of our country’s youthful history.

    It would seem to me that our country has ample opportunity for both prehistoric and modern (or whatever you call our history from Columbus forward) archeological inquest without needing to raise the importance of every buried bullet or token to that of ‘historically significant’.

    Certainly, we are not England or Europe where you might find the grave of a medieval knight or a lost king while digging up a car park. There is much there that is lost in the mists of time. Here, we know much of the how and what (at least from Columbus forward). Certainly, we still discover new what’s and how’s, but the where’s and when’s seem to be the bigger unknowns here. At Montpelier, for instance, have they discovered anything unknown from the era? My guess is that what they have uncovered there is ‘where’ and ‘when’ answers. But, I am completely unread in that area.

    In my mind, it would seem that encouraging the collection and aggregation of data on finds and sites by amateur archeologists and detectorists would be of great value in archeological research. A large quantity of find imagery and geolocation data that could be analysed by academics could aid in detecting patterns that could flesh out some of the ‘what and who’ were ‘where and when’ questions.

    One final question…did you see any mobile apps being used by the teams similar to the Coinshooter app I have developed? Just wondering if there is a correlative in the academic circles. It seems so obvious that I would be surprised if there is not. The only problem that I see with an straight up smartphone app is that the GPS might not be accurate enough. It seems I read somewhere of specialized GPS units with sub-meter accuracy. Hooking a phone or pad up to something like that would seem to give you a superb data collection system: in situ imagery, audio notes, lat/long, depth, etc, etc.

    Sorry for the massive brain dump! I’m hoping you can give me some insight that will help me appreciate the reasons behind the growing restrictions on the metal detecting hobby. If I can wrap my mind around there being a greater good for society, it will make it easier to stomach as the inevitable becomes the actual.

    Best regards,
    Byron Bennett

    • pocketspill / March 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm /

      Byron… your thoughtful questions warrant a new post. Please stand by and I’ll address your questions one by one, and possibly get Montpelier staff to chime in too. Very good!

    • pocketspill / March 23, 2013 at 12:15 pm /

      Make sure you see the new post as well as Dr Matt Reeves’ reply. Let’s keep the dialogue going!

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