House 24 was located close to the aqueduct that fed the mill’s waterwheel and the recent barbed wire fence that followed the same line. It was on top of a rise overlooking the lower, northern section of the village and, further off, the great house. It was distant from the central pathway. The House 24 site was chosen for excavation partly because it was the most isolated of all the visible stone foundations and partly because it possessed a characteristic “hump”. Excavation was carried out in 1980 on the final expedition to New Montpelier. Only about 50 percent of the house site was excavated but this was sufficient to show that it shared some of the unusual features associated with House 37 and therefore served to confirm that House 37 was not strictly unique. House 24 was occupied during the final decades of slavery and beyond abolition down to about 1860.
Detailed documentary data for the houses standing at New Montpelier in 1825, published in British Parliamentary Papers in 1832, includes information on 24 stone houses. These made up only 27 percent of the total village housing stock at that date, the other houses being wattled (wattle-and-daub) or Spanish-walled (timber frames infilled with stone and mortar). Although the houses of 1825 are described in some detail in the surviving documents, and associated with family household groups, it has not been possible to relate these specific descriptions to particular house foundations at the village site. Only houses with stone foundations were visible by surface survey and only these stone foundations were excavated. Within the village a total of 42 complete stone foundations were identified and traces found of at least another ten.
House 24 appears to have had a complete foundation but it is not certain that it is one of those described in the list of 1825. The unusual architectural features that it possessed may point to earlier or later construction. It did not conform to the dimensions found for Houses 14 and 26, nor did it follow the pattern of parallel lines associated with the layout of the houses surrounding Houses 14 and 26. Thus it is unlikely to have been one of the houses built in 1819 to shelter the enslaved people moved from Shettlewood. This is an important point, because it suggests that House 24 was less likely than Houses 14 and 26 to have been the product of design and construction closely controlled by the planter.
Generalized documentary evidence of objects that might survive in the archaeological record (such as iron cooking pots and thimbles) can be found for Montpelier, specifically Old Montpelier, in the early nineteenth century, but none of this evidence can be attributed directly to House 24 or any other house site. The list of houses from 1825 did enumerate the cattle, hogs and poultry belonging to each household but again it is impossible to link this evidence specifically to House 24. Descriptive accounts of plantation life at Montpelier exist from scattered points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so that the broad context is well known.
Excavation history, procedure and methods
At the site of House 24, surface surveys and excavation commenced and ended in 1980, with students from the University of the West Indies and volunteers, led by Barry Higman. Elevations were taken using the plane table and tied to a local datum, and a north-south grid established, for the entire village site. Excavation was principally by levels of varied depth and excavation units or quadrats linked to the site grid, though construction trenches and other special features were treated separately. Most of the excavation was achieved using hand tools, generally trowels and brushes. Screening was used throughout most of the quadrats excavated at House 24, using a 1/8 inch screen, but no flotation. Ceramics were mended to enable a Minimum Vessel Count (MVC), and the bores of clay smoking pipes measured using drills. Specialized analysis of the beads was carried out by Karlis Karklins. The faunal remains were studied by Elizabeth J. Reitz, assisted by Thomas Pluckhan and Philip Cannon, using the comparative skeletal collection at the Zooarchaeological Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, Athens. In estimating the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI), each house was regarded as a discrete analytical unit.
The grassy hump at the northern end of the site was found to cover a smoothed plaster level about one inch below the surface. Excavation along the foundation lines was incomplete but revealed rectangular external dimensions of 14 by 28 feet. The foundation varied in width between 18 and 24 inches and contained mostly roughly squared stone, cemented by lime mortar. Some of these stones were large. No evidence was found of a construction trench but the width of the foundations suggests that House 24 had stone walls up to the eaves. Although House 24 was not excavated completely, the evidence points towards a division of the internal space into three rooms, as at House 37. Similarly, areas of plastered floor were clearly identified in both the northern and southern ends of House 24, curving smoothly up the insides of the walls, as noticed in House 37.
Another unusual feature of House 24, shared with House 37, was the presence of a raised masonry platform in the northern, narrow end of the house, about 6 feet across. It rose 15 inches above the plastered floor and extended 4 feet into the room, making it lower and wider than the platform at House 37. Only a small section of the plastered top of the platform remained in House 24, at the time of excavation, but sufficient to suggest that it was continuous. Another platform seems to have existed in the southern end of House 24, matching the pattern of two found at House 37.
Summary of research and analysis
The location, orientation and dimensions of House 24 suggest that it was built independently, and that it did not belong to the series of houses laid out in parallel lines and constructed by the planters in 1819. The Mean Ceramic Date is 1827 and the Binford Pipe-stem Formula gives an average of 1782. A coin of 1781 was excavated from the house. The Mean Ceramic Date matches the average for the village site but the coin was the earliest found. This suggests that House 24, like House 37, may have preceded the planter-built houses rather than coming at the very end of the period of slavery. It can therefore be contended that House 24 was not only the product of construction work performed by the enslaved masons and carpenters of New Montpelier but was also a creation of the design of the enslaved. The raised platforms found in House 24, like those of House 37, are strongly suggestive of the sleeping platforms found in the vernacular architecture of regions of West Africa from whence the people of Montpelier were taken.
Interpretation of the occupations of the persons occupying House 24 come most directly from the tool-related artifacts. During slavery, and beyond, annual distributions were made of various imported metal agricultural tools, notably cutlass or machete, bill and hoe, but other tools emerged from the excavations. No hoe heads were found at House 24 but there was a 12-inch cutlass blade and two files, suggesting that the occupants were principally agricultural labourers. However, because the site was only partially excavated, the evidence is less complete than for the other houses at New Montpelier.
Of the domestic life that was lived within the walls of House 24, little can be established, with items of furniture and methods of lighting hard to identify. If the interpretation is correct, beds were not needed in House 24 because they were replaced by the built-in sleeping platforms.
The food history of the household can be reconstructed, at least in some of its aspects. The documentary record for Montpelier describes the annual distribution, in the 1820s, of imported iron cooking pots and knives. These are present among the excavated artifacts. House 24 yielded two knife blades and a bone knife handle, the latter bearing criss-cross incisions suggesting individualization. Wear marks on stones may indicate that they had been used to grind corn or other grain. It is known, however, that vessels and utensils crafted from organic materials, such as wood, calabash and bamboo, were in common use, and these items were not recovered archaeologically.
Direct evidence of the food consumed at House 24 is confined to animal sources and the data obtained from the vertebrate faunal analysis carried out by Elizabeth J. Reitz. House 24 yielded an MNI of 9, comparable to the numbers found in Houses 26 and 37 that were fully excavated. The most common species in House 24 were unidentified rodents (3) and pig (2), as well as individual cow, sheep/goat and chicken. Contemporary descriptive accounts refer to the use of all these as potential food but whether the individuals found in House 24 were actually eaten is less certain as is the question which parts were used as human food. Some of the bones had been sawed or cut, indicating butchering. Fish, distributed in the largest quantities in pickled and salted form to the enslaved people of New Montpelier, left little trace.
As at the other sites, most of the ceramics found at House 24 related to the preparation and consumption of food, and most of these items were imported (British-made) goods, purchased in the local markets or obtained from the plantation’s resources. The ceramics from House 24 remain to be analyzed for precise comparison with Houses 14, 26 and 37.
Clothing and costume is known archaeologically principally through its technologies and accessories, whereas the documentary record specific to Montpelier emphasizes the kinds and amounts of cloth distributed by the planters during slavery along with caps and hats, and general descriptive accounts focus on style and fashion. The point of overlap is found in the needles, thimbles and scissors, that occur in both contexts. House 24 yielded a thimble but no needles. Outside the documentary record specific to Montpelier, House 24 yielded 20 buttons, more than in any of the other house sites even though House 24 was only partially excavated. Two of these buttons had texts. House 24 also yielded two belt buckles, with their tongues, made of cast iron or brass and square in shape.
Taking into account that House 24 was only partially excavated, the site produced a relatively large number of beads, 13 of the 64 excavated from the village sites. Analysis by Karlis Karklins has identified 22 bead types in the New Montpelier collection. House 24 had representatives from seven of these types, and contained one of the three carnelian beads found in the village. As at House 14, the most common types at House 24 were drawn glass, particularly tubular, undecorated blue beads. Karklins argues that the evidence from the beads suggests that all four of Houses 14, 24, 26 and 37 were occupied at about the same time.
This interpretation fits closely the conclusions drawn from the other datable artifacts as well as the documentary record for New Montpelier, that the houses were occupied in the later decades of slavery and for perhaps two decades beyond abolition. The people who lived in House 24 experienced the brutality and hardships of slavery, the rebellion of 1831/32, and the apprenticeship, but remained on the estate after 1838 (or, less probably, were replaced by like individuals) to endure the immediate post-slavery period at least down to the abandonment of sugar production. As to the particular status of the occupants of House 24 within the community of the village, the fact that they lived in a house built of stone did not necessarily point to their being relatively well off, and it seems most likely that they were field labourers. The existence of the sleeping platforms does however suggest the possibility that the people who built and lived in House 24 were able to recreate a design brought with them from Africa.