A Constitutional Journey: Field Trip to Montpelier

by Dr. Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

Our journey begins.

Our journey begins.

Our field trip yesterday to James Madison’s Montpelier (July 2, 2013) certainly could not have been to a more appropriate place given the holiday this week that celebrates America’s independence from Britain.  I met the nine field school students and my field assistant Ashley at the University of Mary Washington dorm that is housing the students, and we began the hour-long journey to Montpelier, largely down the aptly named Constitution highway.

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On the steps to the Montpelier archaeology laboratory.

When we arrived, we met with Dr. Matt Reeves, Directory of Archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier.  Dr. Reeves kindly arranged for all of us to join a formal tour of the mansion, which began with a film in the visitors center.  We met Allen Huber there, who is also assisting the teaching of the VCU field school students at Ferry Farm.

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The mansion at Montpelier, reconstructed to the time that James Madison was in residence.

After the film, we joined one of the official tours of James Madison’s Montpelier mansion.  Seeing how the past is interpreted is a key element of the education of the young archaeologist. It is important to realize that archaeology is not simply about–or should not simply be about–removing objects from the soil, but must also focus on communicating the importance of those findings to the non-archaeologist.

Our tour guide speaks to us.

Our tour guide orients us to James Madison’s Montpelier.

This is actually the second time I’ve taken the official tour of the Mansion.  It is interesting how each tour guide presents the same historic data with a different perspective.

Walking through the interpretive landscape around the mansion, past wooden frames that represent the location of quarters for enslaved servants.

Walking through the interpretive landscape around the mansion, past wooden frames that represent the location of quarters for enslaved servants.

After the Mansion tour, we quickly traveled over to the archaeological site.  The skies were threatening and Dr. Reeves suggested that we meet him at the excavation site so that he could give us a tour of their current excavations. As is the case for Ferry Farm, the current excavations of the Montpelier site are open to the public.

Signage!

Signage!

Dr. Reeves arrives on site.

Dr. Reeves arrives on site while Bridget Polk examines some of the current findings.

We met Dr. Reeves under a large shelter set up to protect their field crew from the elements.  There we met Rachael Hulvey, a current VCU student who is an intern for the summer at James Madison’s Montpelier.

Rachael Hulvey, seated, shows some of the current findings from Montpelier.

Rachael Hulvey, seated, shows some of the current findings from Montpelier.

After our meeting with Rachael, Dr.Reeves discussed how this year’s excavations are working to further interpret the daily lives of the enslaved servants that supported James Madison and his family throughout his life, including during his time helping write the Constitution and when he was president of the United States.

Dr. Matt Reeves, left, discusses the current excavations at Montpelier.

Dr. Matt Reeves, left, discusses the current excavations at Montpelier.

After our tour of the active excavation site ended, we paused at the entrance to the cordoned-off excavation area to discuss the overall interpretation of the site, and past excavations.  As Dr. Reeves stood near some very effective signage–which highlighted what they were doing, why they were doing it, and what they had found–he discussed their past excavations of a tobacco barn that was used in the off-season as a temporary quarter for enslaved servants.  The enslaved servants on the landscape out of sight of the Madison mansion lived a very different life than those closer to, and in  view of, James Madison and his frequent visitors.

Ashley McCuistion looks on as Dr. Reeves discusses the tobacco barn excavations.

Ashley McCuistion looks on as Dr. Reeves discusses the tobacco barn excavations.

After a lunch at the very nice visitor’s center, we toured the exhibit of objects associated with James and Dolly Madison.  One of these objects is a teapot finial in the shape of a satyr’s head that we scanned on an earlier visit.

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Scanned satyr’s head. Click on image for animated version.

Our final destination on our tour of James Madison’s Montpelier was their laboratory.  The archaeology laboratory consists of a large room with ample space for a large number of field school students to work, as well as drawers that house key findings and that can be used as a type collection.  The archaeology laboratory is open to the public, who are encouraged to watch the staff at work.

VCU field school students examine some of the type collection.

VCU field school students examine some of the type collection.

I also returned a loan of artifacts to Kim Trickett, who is the archaeological laboratory manager.  VCU field school student Aaron Ellrich scanned these American Indian artifacts as part of a research project that he is undertaking, and we obtained additional artifacts for 3D scanning as well in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. While in the Montpelier archaeological laboratory, I used my portable digital microscope to examine some of their floral remains obtained through archaeological flotation.

Dr. Reeves and several VCU field school students look at a charred grain of wheat.

Dr. Reeves and several VCU field school students look at a charred grain of wheat.

Charred wheat seed at x45 magnification

Charred wheat seed at x45 magnification.

For those if you who have not gone yet to this very interesting archaeological investigation, you can learn more at the following two web sites:

http://www.montpelier.org/blog/update-quarter-field-slaves

and https://plus.google.com/u/0/107749459467325737293/posts

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One thought on “A Constitutional Journey: Field Trip to Montpelier

  1. Pingback: VCU @ Ferry Farm 2013 | Week 2: More Rain, Montpelier, and Public Archaeology on America’s Birthday

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