Before we were able to put units into the ground, Montpelier archaeology has spent multiple seasons conducting metal detecting survey to better understand where the Overseer’s House was located. The site is of incredible importance to our understanding of the Madison Home Farm – a complex of slave quarters, barns, blacksmith shop, and other agricultural work areas from the late 18th and early 19th century.

We initially knew about the general location of the site from an 1844 plat that was attached to a deed transferring the property from Dolley Madison to the Moncure family. During the same time, Dolley sold the entire enslaved community, and the 120 years of Madison ownership ended – Montpelier never witnessed the same level of intensive occupation by a single community ever again. As such, the year 1844 marks a watershed year for the Home Farm as that is when this entire complex is abandoned, a reality bore out by the survey.

The 1844 map that shows the location of the main house, overseer’s house, and Madison’s Mill. While the map provides a general location, archaeological survey is necessary to get a more refined location.

Finding the House Site

The first physical clue to the overseers house being near the Madison Family Cemetery came in the late 1970s when a well settled, opening a hole in the ground. Workers on the estate filled it, and later informed archaeologists about its presence. In the late 1980s, archaeologists opened a few units in the area of the well, and located a concentration of artifacts dating between the 1790s-1840s, indicating the presence of the site and the potential of the overseers house site.

The Home Farm area. The Overseer’s Site is located where the dead grass is in the foreground of the photograph.

Two decades later, our metal detector crew, Dennis and Lance, came across the site during reconnaissance surveys, and in 2016, Dennis conducted a 20-meter metal detector survey across the entire home farm area, and located a number of potential archaeological sites. Among these included a dense scatter of artifacts near the location of the overseer site, suggesting the location of a domestic structure, and a neighboring blacksmith shop. These surveys are part of Montpelier’s broader effort to identify sites through metal detector survey across the entire 2,700 acres owned by the Montpelier Foundation, and combine them with other data, such as the extensive liDAR conducted earlier this year.

The overseer house site is just below the two red squares in the middle of the map.

Metal detector survey is ideal for locating historic sites because almost all of these sites contain iron nails, whether it be a barn, slave quarter, fence, road or work area. Nails have been available for holding wood timbers together since the initial settlement of Montpelier by enslaved Africans and as a result are concentrated where work and living spots were located. In addition, nails have the distinct advantage of going through three changes in manufacture from the colonial period through to the sale of Montpelier in 1844. This makes the humble nail an incredible resource to date sites we located with an incredible degree of accuracy. Based on the types of nails recovered at sites, we can narrow the occupation to the following periods, 1730s-1790s, 1790s-1830s, and 1840s-1900. For this reason, the metal detectorists who help us on our surveys affectionately call nails, “Montpelier Gold”!

Because of the high density of nails found near the overseer’s site on the 20 meter survey, we knew we had an interesting set of deposits to investigate that covers a 2.5 parcel of land. With the 20 meter survey, this gave us a coarse-grained map for just how large these two sites (overseers and blacksmith) are and their position on the landscape. Once defined, we used the results from the 20 meter map to figure out where to conduct more intensive surveys to dial in to patterns of artifacts at the overseers site. These closer interval metal detector surveys are carried out on a 10 foot grid (there are about 36 10-foot squares in a 20-meter square) and are the venue for our 1-week metal detector programs. 

The suspected location of the overseers house is the two red squares that contain the highest concentration of cut nails.

Intensive Metal Detector Survey of Overseers House Site

Over the past three seasons, we have hosted two metal detector expeditions at this site, plotting the area with a 10 foot grid and having volunteers sweep these grids to obtain a clearer picture of the extent of the site and the range of deposits. Survey includes two parts: counting historic hits in each grid to identify concentrations of nails, and excavating a small portion of these hits to understand the way the landscape was being used.

Counting historic hits allows us to make a site density map, which provided a number of insights into the site itself

  1. The presence of cut nails nails suggest the overseer’s house was built in the 1810s.
  2. The distribution of hits shows that the overseer’s house is distinct from the Mount Pleasant site located just to the north (Mount Pleasant being the original homesite of the Madison family).
  3. There is a concentration of nails and hits just to the west of the well that is potentially the building location for the overseers site (two red squares in the map).
  4. The blacksmith shop just shows up on the south side of the area metal detected in 2016. The rest of the blacksmith shop extends to the south on the other side of West Gate Road.
  5. The lower density of hits (green) in the western part of the site seems to suggest this might be downslope and away from the main activity area, while the higher density to the east suggest yard and work areas.

For each 10 foot grid, a sample of three hits were excavated, identified, photographed, and bagged or reburied. The objects were then plotted on a map, and again provided a number of insights:

An example of nails excavated from a hit. Nails are ideal for sampling because they can be used to distinguish 18th, 19th, and 20th century sites.

  1. The presence of cut nails (green dots) across the entire site area show the level of intensive activity that occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. In other words, this entire area was used as a work area and as part of the overseer’s site. Based on excavations we carried out in the 2001-2004 period at Mount Pleasant, the area to the north had a much lower amount of cut nails–and was almost exclusively wrought nails–showing the old Madison home site was not used as a work or living area in the 1800s. Based on earlier excavations, the cellar holes of the main house and kitchen were back filled by the 1790s and the old Mount Pleasant site area began to be plowed in the 1820s.
  2. The area around N830E750 contains a concentration of almost exclusively cut nails, further suggesting the location of the overseer’s house. This use of exclusively cut nails suggests the potential this structure was frame, but much more testing and research needs to take place before this can be stated more definitively.
  3. The higher amount of wrought nails in the eastern part of the project area suggest there might be addition structures in this locale–potential slave quarters, or there could be a mix between Mount Pleasant-era activities and later dating 1820s-30s period activities mixed within this area.

With these clues in hand, we have a better idea about where to position our excavation units!

Teamwork and Metal Detecting

As amazing as the archaeology is at the overseers house site, one of the most inspiring parts of this survey has been working with the range of metal detectorists, volunteers, and archaeologists during the two programs we held at the site between 2016 and 2018. Since 2012, we have been hosting metal detector enthusiasts in spending the week at Montpelier to share their skills with using metal detectors to locate and define sites. These programs are collaborative in that the metal detectorists in attendance provide their often decades of metal detecting experience and expertise with very sophisticated machines to locate small nails in an iron rich clay soil–no small feat! In turn, the archaeology team shares with the metal detectorists the methods and techniques necessary to map, record, and analyze the artifacts coming out of the ground. These programs are always a sure fire success as our two groups (metal detectorists and archaeologists) share the same passion for finding history in the ground. By the second day, stories of finds are being swapped and techniques for identifying and conserving artifacts swirl about as the artifacts come out of the ground.

The 2017 season marked a milestone in our metal detector programs. With six seasons of metal detector programs in the bank, members of our regular dig expeditions started to ask how they could get involved with the metal detector programs. What we devised was a further way to extend the team concept by using the programs to train non metal detectorists in how to use a machine. This new addition is some thing we have been wanting to try for a number of years as many archaeologists and expedition members have been interested in attending to learn more about working with detectorists and detector machines. The result was a team effort where the non metal detecting participants were taught the paper work by staff for the first couple of days, and by the third day switched roles with the metal detectorists so they could learn how to use the machines. This triple level of collaboration added a new level of esprit-de-corps for all groups involved. With the new project we have undertaken to examine the extent of the Home Farm complex associated with the overseer’s house site, we are thrilled to inaugurate the November 2019 program with examining a blacksmith site, swork areas,m and a potential slave quarter. Come out and join us to learn more about metal detector survey, archaeology excavations, and uncover the history of the Madison Farm complex! For more information, see our brochure on our metal detecting program. 

Attend one of our Metal Detecting Expeditions!

Written By

Matthew B. Reeves, PhD
Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration

Matt Reeves has been the Director of Archaeology since 2000. Over the past two decades, Matt’s research has focused on plantation life and Civil War encampments with a focus on site of the African Diaspora. For the past three decades, Matt’s focus in public archaeology has centered on citizen science in particular to working with descendant communities and metal detectorists. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Syracuse University.

2 Comments

  • Hi Ken, before 1794, the overseer was at the old Mt. Pleasant site, after his house burned in 1794, the new overseer house was built–which is was we are excavating as part of this project today!

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