New Digital Initiative Brings The Archaeology Of James Madison’s Montpelier To The Public


In this Wednesday, April 12, 2017 photo, a ghost slave cabin sits in a field near James Madison’s Montpelier, in Montpelier, Va. The cabin is one of several that were partially constructed to show building techniques used in the era. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last month the Montpelier Digital Collections Project was announced as a recipient of the National Endowment of the Humanities’ Digital Humanities Advancements Grant. Montpelier, a stately plantation house located in the hills north of Charlottesville, Virginia, is best known as the former home of the United State’s fourth president, James Madison. While we might think of the history of Madison’s life and times as set, new archaeological and archival research has been steadily building on our understanding of this period in our nation’s past.

Scholarly research in archaeology and history often ends up in academic journals, locked behind paywalls, or dusty archives that are difficult for the public to access. Dr. Ethan Watrall, a member of the project’s advisory board, notes that the purpose of this NEH grant is to overcome these problems. “This project is particularly exciting because it sets the groundwork for a platform that will provide meaningful access to digitized archaeological and historic materials to scholars and descendant communities alike.”

As an 18th century plantation, Montpelier was home to many more people then Madison and his immediate family. Scores of enslaved people also lived on the plantation, but their lives received only minimal mention in the written record. Dr. Matt Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier, notes that archaeological research on the plantation has provided “insight into the individuals who have been excluded from history, but who were integral to the creation of Madison’s wealth, and were the economic underpin of the country–enslaved laborers.”

This is where archaeological research can add to our understanding of the past in a way that written records cannot. Excavations at Montpelier have documented the remains of material culture that once belonged to the enslaved laborers giving us a window into their lives. The physical objects that we live among shape our daily lives in terms of the tasks we can perform and the ways in which we interact with other people. A kitchen table fosters a different style of interaction then a counter at a diner, just as the slave quarters at Montpelier shaped daily life in ways different to the people to living in the plantation house.

Excavations by Montpelier’s public archaeology program have documented two kitchens, a smokehouse, as well as dwellings, laying a foundation for our understanding of the space in which daily activities took place. Excavations at the site have also found occasional glimpses into the mindset of the enslaved people living at Montpelier; the discovery of a pipe inscribed with the world “Liberty” is among the most poignant of these objects. Perhaps most telling to the perspective the Madison’s held on enslaved people was the discovery by archaeologists of the remains of a row of trees that had been planted to ensure that people in the plantation house would not see the slave quarters.

Empowered by this new NEH grant, Montpelier’s Digital Collections project will be able to improve public access to the latest developments made by scholars working at the site. Reeves notes “providing open and transparent access to all of our information is key to our philosophy of citizen science that is a central tenant for our Expedition Programs.” By working together with descendant communities and public interest groups Reeves hopes to provide “full access to how we know about Montpelier’s past.”

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