Join an archaeological dig—it’s fun, fascinating, and moving

Before last fall, I thought I knew all about Montpelier. I was pretty sure, for example, that the Civil War had little connection with James and Dolley Madison's estate. I was wrong.

In the woods across the highway from the Montpelier mansion are traces of a big encampment where hundreds of Confederate soldiers spent the winter of 1863-64. Admittedly, the site isn't much to look at—a series of shallow depressions where crude wood huts once stood—but archaeological investigation there has told us a lot about camp life, and two of the huts are being ­reconstructed. If you explore thoughtfully, you can imagine the woods bustling with activity through that long-ago winter. When spring came, the men who had made a temporary home at Montpelier marched east to annihilation in the hellish fighting at the Wilderness.

Not far from the encampment stands a modest whitewashed cabin from the early 1870s. Its builder, George Gilmore, had been born into slavery at the Madison estate. After Emancipation, he bought 16 acres of land from President Madison's great-nephew, built this cabin, and raised a family. Over the years the house slumped into near-ruin, but eventually it was slated for restoration—and when the Montpelier Foundation started excavating the site, some of George Gilmore's descendants joined the dig. That story moves me so much that I can't say anything else about it.

The soldiers' camp and the Gilmore cabin were among the many discoveries I made while participating, with a dozen others, in a week-long archaeological dig at Montpelier, near the mansion. After we had opened the site with shovels, our job consisted mostly of crouching or kneeling in some shallow trenches, scraping the soil with trowels like old-time barbers shaving clients, putting the soil in buckets, hauling the buckets to another place, sifting the dirt through a series of progressively smaller screens, and putting whatever artifacts turned up into a paper bag. It was relatively nonstrenuous, but don't tell my aching back and knees I said so.

Visitors who stopped to watch us at work usually asked, "What are you looking for?" or "What are you finding?" I suspect they hoped we'd answer, "Dolley Madison's long-lost diamonds," but we were really seeking—and finding—information. Sure, nothing gladdens a digger's heart more than a midden (that's a genteel synonym for "trash pit") full of intriguing stuff, but archaeologists can also be tickled to death by finding no artifacts at all, and they can get crazy excited over a stain in the soil. Everything means something—and the absence of something means something, too. Information is what matters.

Unfortunately, that information isn't always revealed quickly or easily. I thought archaeology dealt with facts and final answers, but it's equally about implications and unanswered questions. The archaeologists I worked with were always saying things like "I don't know how this thing got here" or "We have no idea what this means." I suggested "legerdemain" or "the work of the devil" as plausible explanations for some of the mysteries, but nobody seemed eager to embrace those concepts. Eventually, I came to believe that finality is overrated—and uncertainty only makes the digging more interesting.

So, apart from the discovery of the property's Civil War connections and the realization that "Grab a shovel and a mattock and come with me" may be the most terrifying sentence in the English language, what did I learn from my stay at Montpelier? This: If you think something sounds like fun, it probably is—and you should do it. This year, volunteers are helping excavate the site of a stable and associated slave quarters. Check out and think about signing up. Get some Virginia dirt on those knees.

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