House 26 was the first domestic site excavated at New Montpelier. The site was chosen because it presented a rectangular shape that was easily identified in the grassy surface, with some elements of the stone foundation protruding, and because it was near to the centre of the known village area and immediately beside what appeared to be a shallow sunken pathway leading upslope through the village. Extensive excavation in 1973 and 1975 exposed a complete stone foundation with evidence of occupation 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 26 is one of the former, with a complete foundation. Probably it is also one of the houses described in 1825. The precise boundaries of the village are known from a plan of the plantation surveyed in 1821. By 1973 the stone wall that enclosed two sides of the village in 1821 had been levelled to allow free grazing of livestock but the aqueduct that marked the other two sides remained and was supplemented by a barbed wire fence.
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 26 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 26. 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
Surface surveys and excavation commenced in 1973, beginning with a joint project by students from the University of the West Indies and Johns Hopkins University, led by Robert Riordan as archaeologist, together with Jack P. Greene, Barry Higman and Douglas Hall. Further excavations were undertaken in 1975, with students from the University of the West Indies, staff from the Port Royal Archaeological Project, and volunteers, led by Barry Higman and Tony Aarons. 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 not applied systematically to most of the quadrats of House 26 but when used a 1/8 inch screen was employed. No flotation was carried out. 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.
Excavation proved House 26 to have a foundation completely constructed of stone with external dimensions 27 by 18 feet. The stone was all limestone, blocks readily found within the site itself or transported short distances from quarries on the property. The foundation averaged 18 inches in width, with the corners largely made up of cut stones, smoothed to even surfaces on their external faces. Some of these corner stones were massive, the largest being 7 by 13 by 40 inches. Cut stones also dominated in the lowest course of the walls but irregular, smaller and unworked stones were more common in these sections, packed with smaller stones and cemented by lime mortar.
All of the evidence derived from excavation suggests that House 26 was not merely a house with a stone foundation, perhaps topped by a Spanish-wall or wattle-and-daub, but rather a structure in which stone constituted the walls all the way up to the eaves. The roof of the building was probably shingled, as suggested by the documentary report of 1825. Large quantities of nails were excavated in a fairly even scatter that suggests they secured the rafters, laths and shingles. The weight of construction using stone probably meant that the walls narrowed towards the eaves and that they were low, perhaps not more than 7 feet in height.
Excavation also demonstrated that the foundation of House 26 was laid in a construction trench, extending about 3 inches beyond the stones on the outside of the house. The construction trench was excavated separately but yielded few artifacts useful for dating.
The floor of House 26 was composed of packed marl and small stones, mixed with soil and tamped to a smooth surface. This layer averaged 3 inches in depth, but could not be identified in all areas of the house. There is no evidence of boards in the floor. Discolouration in the soil of the floor suggests that House 26 was divided into two rooms, with the internal dimensions 13 by 15 and 9 by 15 feet, the large room fronting the pathway.
In House 26 the presence of a doorway can be inferred from a concentration of stone inside and outside the centre of the western wall, some of these stones being cut stones that perhaps served as steps. Probably there was a second door. Three door keys were found in House 26 but it is not certain that these turned locks in the doors of this house. It is unlikely that the house had windows of glass, at least during the period of slavery.
Summary of research and analysis
The orientation of House 26 suggests that it was one of a series of houses laid out in parallel lines (as in the case of House 14) and therefore perhaps built in 1819 when enslaved people were moved from Shettlewood to New Montpelier and had houses prepared for them. That this was the year of construction of House 26 finds support in the evidence of the artifacts. The Mean Ceramic Date is 1829, the Binford Pipe-stem Formula gives an average of 1767, and the house contained a coin dated 1784. Thus it may be argued with confidence that House 26 was built under supervision of the plantation management, in terms of precise layout and dimensions, and that resources of labour and materials (including stone, lime, timber, shingles and nails) were made available. The actual work of construction would have been performed by the enslaved masons and carpenters of New Montpelier.
Interpretation of the occupations of the persons occupying House 26 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. House 26 yielded three hoe heads, more than any other of the excavated sites and all within the walls of the house; these were all made of wrought iron and had shapes typical of the eighteenth century. A cutlass blade with rivets, that would have held its wooden handle in place, was also found inside House 26. Associated with these tools were four files, more than in any other of the sites, and an ax head and three wedges (perhaps used in splitting timbers), and a hammer head. This pattern suggests a family group chiefly working in field labour but perhaps including a person who worked in the woods or as a plantation carpenter.
Of the domestic life that was lived within the walls of House 26, little can be established, with items of furniture and methods of lighting hard to identify. There is some tantalizing evidence of the legs of a bed, that had worked their way into the floor, but this cannot be confirmed. House 26 was also unusual in yielding artifacts associated with lighting, including an iron candle-snuffer, a two-spout tin lamp, a brass spout from an oil lamp, and two tinder box steels.
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 26 yielded a large proportion of knives and two metal spoons, but no forks. There were also fragments of a metal grater, used for the preparation of cassava, coconut or spices. 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, gourd and bamboo, were in common use, and these items were not recovered archaeologically.
Most of the numerous ceramics found at House 26 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. It is surprising that so little locally made pottery was found, in light of the vigorous African tradition that survived in the island. Once again, it is difficult to assess the extent to which the ceramics, whether local or imported, were balanced by objects of organic materials. Of the excavated ceramics, the MVC showed House 26 to have 84 unique vessels, more than House 14 (50 vessels) and House 37 (76 vessels). In terms of shape and type, the vessels of House 26 included a large proportion of bowls (41.7 percent), significantly more than for any other site. Compared to the other house sites, House 26 was characterized by its large proportion of whiteware, most of these vessels having transfer-print, willow-print or other decorations. Only 1.2 percent of the vessels excavated at House 26 were locally-made ceramics or yabbas.
Direct evidence of the food consumed at House 26 is confined to animal sources and the data obtained from the vertebrate faunal analysis carried out by Elizabeth J. Reitz. House 26 yielded a lower MNI (7) than any of the other houses and this number derived from a low retrieval of bone fragments, probably as a result of the limited use of screening at this site. The individuals represented in House 26 were cow, pig, chicken, a possible dog and unidentified rodent, and most interestingly a hutia. Contemporary descriptive accounts refer to the use of all these as potential food but whether the individuals found in House 26 were actually eaten is less certain as is the question which parts were used as human food. House 26 is again interesting however because it yielded the only example of burned bone found in the village excavations, and the only examples of slice bone. Other bones at House 26 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.
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 26 yielded the remains of a pair of scissors but no needles in spite of their being handed out in quantity. Outside the documentary record specific to Montpelier, only five buttons were found in House 26, by far the lowest number for any of the house sites.
House 26 produced the largest number of beads found at any of the house sites, 23 of the 64 overall. Analysis by Karlis Karklins has identified 22 bead types in the New Montpelier collection. House 26 had representatives from 14 of these types, and contained the unique metal bead, of gilded brass. The most common types at House were of drawn glass, particularly tubular, undecorated blue beads, but House 26 was unusual in having in addition a variety of wound glass beads of varied colours. 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 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 26 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 26 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. If one or more of them was a carpenter, as suggested, then they would have had certain material benefits within the limits of the system, hints of which might be found in the beads and the lighting artifacts, but most of the occupants of House 26 were probably spent their lives in arduous field labour.