The University of Arizona

Zooarchaeology Continues at James Madison's Montpelier

December 2011

Dr. Pavao-Zuckerman in the field

Dr. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman (right) leads a group of anthropology students in ongoing research at the home of James Madison, founding father and fourth president of the United States. Dr. Pavao-Zuckerman is associate curator of zooarchaeology at Arizona State Museum and associate director of the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology. See an earlier report on this research, including background on Madison and Montpelier.

As part of a continuing collaboration between the Montpelier FoundationOpens in a new window and Arizona State Museum, the Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology is currently analyzing zooarchaeological remains excavated from a slave quarters located at Montpelier Mansion, the Virginia home of founding father and fourth president James Madison, Jr. The site is particularly important because it presents a rare opportunity to examine rural plantation life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a pivotal time period in American history.

ASM curator Dr. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman and students at the University of Arizona previously examined zooarchaeological remains from the childhood home of the president, from the early days of his marriage to Dolley, and from the couple’s retirement to Montpelier. These contexts allow reconstruction of changes in cuisine practices at the Madison table from the turn of the 19th century, encompassing the death of James Madison, Sr., and James, Jr.’s service as secretary of state, to the time period beginning in 1818, when James and Dolley returned to Montpelier following his final term as president. This research suggests that cuisine practices were relatively high-status throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but may have become more narrowly focused over time, perhaps as a strategy to more efficiently feed the household’s frequent, and usually distinguished, visitors.

Marybeth Harte

The foods consumed by the Madison household and their guests were raised, prepared, and served by enslaved African-Americans who lived at the plantation. Unfortunately, very little is yet known about the diet, or lives, of the enslaved inhabitants of the plantation. But recent excavations led by Dr. Matthew Reeves (Montpelier Foundation) have unearthed a slave quarters with a large quantity of animal remains. This new assemblage of zooarchaeological data from the slave quarters (known as the Stable Quarter) is currently under analysis by Marybeth Harte (left), a senior at the University of Arizona who is majoring in anthropology with a special interest in historical archaeology. Mary is analyzing the Montpelier Stable Quarter assemblage as part of her senior thesis research.

Although the research is in progress and results are preliminary, the Stable Quarter assemblage has, so far, yielded predominantly remains from domesticated animals. Among these, pigs are the most common species, represented by many mandibles, teeth, and toes. Although pigs appear to dominate, as was typical for this time period, cattle are also common in the assemblage. This pattern is quite similar to that observed in the Madison household trash. However, it also appears that caprines (sheep and/or goats) are more common in the Stable Quarter assemblage than elsewhere at Montpelier. It was anticipated that enslaved individuals may have consumed more wild game than the Madison household. Squirrels, while infrequent, are the most common wild game species in the Stable Quarter assemblage so far. Their presence suggests that slaves at least occasionally supplemented their rations by hunting or trapping small game, but these animals were also found in the Madisons’ trash. As the research continues, the story will no doubt become more complex, and even more interesting.

Read more about the Stable QuarterOpens in a new window and archaeology at MontpelierOpens in a new window in general.

Photo of Dr. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman by Meg Gaillard
Photo of Marybeth Harte by Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman

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