Ceramic Fragments Provide Clues to an Enslaved Community's Past
What does a one-inch-square scrap of an old ceramic teacup mean? Plenty, when it’s found during an archaeological dig at James Madison’s Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site in Orange County, Virginia.
The dig took place over a four-year period ending in 2016, and focused on the South Yard, which contained housing for many of the people enslaved by the Madison family. It yielded thousands of ceramic pieces from hundreds of china patterns. Their existence revealed that members of Montpelier’s enslaved community often purchased their own ceramics using money they earned through activities like raising livestock, growing vegetables, or sewing—on top of the unpaid work the Madisons required of them.
“The ledger books survive from at least one nearby store,” says Mary Furlong Minkoff, curator of archaeological collections. “We have records of people we know were enslaved at Montpelier buying things for themselves.”
This fragment of British-made transferware bears the “Bride of Lammermoor” pattern, which came out after the 1819 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s eponymous novel. “Transfer-printed ceramics come in a wide variety of quality,” says Minkoff. “This one has a blurry print—it’s not great quality.” Unlike the more expensive ceramics used in the main house, it was likely purchased individually, rather than as part of a set.When longtime volunteer and Visiting Curator of Ceramics Leslie Bouterie spotted a tea bowl and saucer of the same pattern and period for sale in 2019, she bought them and gave them to Montpelier. The site has purchased additional period transferware that matches other archaeological findings as part of its ongoing effort to convey the daily lives and surroundings of people the Madisons enslaved on the property. The Bride of Lammermoor fragment, bowl, and saucer (all shown at top) are not currently on view in the rebuilt South Yard housing, but the site plans to display them in the future.