Since March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department has been hard at work excavating the remains of two smokehouses that served the Madison family and enslaved community during the 1820s and 30s. Smokehouses were a critical component of any plantation, allowing meat to be preserved throughout the year. The evidence for these structures will inform the final reconstructions of the South Yard structures, funded by David Rubenstein's gift. Up until this season's work, archaeologists and historians at Montpelier have only speculated as to the existence of these smokehouses, which appear only on an 1837 insurance map. No other evidence indicates their location, dimensions, or function. The excavations laid to rest pivotal questions such as the nature of the buildings' foundations, their dimensions, and the presence or absence of a central fire box.
One of the most unexpected finds of the season were the building foundations. Typically, smokehouses rested on brick or stone foundations, creating a tight seal along the base of the building to keep smoke inside the structure. However, no archaeological evidence pointed towards masonry foundations. Instead, trenches in the shape of aproximately 14' squares were identified on the expected location of the smokehouses. Consultation with Montpelier's Historical Architect Jennifer Glass point towards the use of a buried, sacrificial sill in lieu of a brick or stone base. A second sill, visible and above ground, would have been placed on top of the buried sill, forming a tight seal around the base of the structure, without using valuable masonry materials.
Further evidence for this type of construction is demonstrated by the presence of lyme deposits within the trenches on the east smokehouse. Because the buried sills were not visible, these deposits suggest that old timbers may have been used instead. The lyme deposits, which appear to be in place, may have been used to fill mortise holes in these reused timbers to prevent rodent or insect infestation. The presence of these deposits further indicates that these trenches were not used for masonry, but instead for wooden sills.
The Smoking Gun
While square foundations are good evidence for a possible smokehouse, a central fire pit is the proverbial smoking gun. Archaeologists questioned the likelihood of two smokehouses on the property, wondering instead if one of these buildings had been used for meat storage, while another had been used for smoking. The archaeological evidence, however, spoke differently: each of the square buildings had a firepit located directly in its center, preserving the final fires in place. Neither of these pits were lined with brick, a standard feature in smokehouses. Instead, these firepits were dug directly into the earthen clay floor.
Recent botanical analysis, collected from the burnt remains shows a wide variety of wood that was used in the wood. Among them include chestnut, dogwood, hickory, oak, walnut, pine, and persimmon. Such a wide variety suggests that the enslaved individuals who carried out the smoking were creating a variety of flavor profiles on the meat.
The Small Things
In addition to the discovery of the smokehouses, the archaeology team has uncovered numerous household artifacts relating to the day-to-day life of the individuals who lived and worked in the South Yard. A large portion of these items are the ceramics that slaves purchased at local markets and personal items that were lost or discarded. These artifacts have shed valuable light on the individual lives of the enslaved community that would otherwise never be seen due to the lack of documentary records on the Madisons enslaved individuals.
Over the next few months, our team will be at the Archaeology Lab, cataloguing our finds from the summer and generating reports detailing our finds, and you can help! In February, our Lab Analysis Workshop will examine the ceramics that were discovered, and begin to piece them together. You can learn more about this week-long residential program here. In March, our new season will begin, with new opportunities for you to help locate the final two structures in the South Yard! Learn more about all our programs here!