Metal Detecting in the Snow at Montpelier

It seemed like a great idea to spend spring break a month ago learning how to metal detect at Montpelier in Virginia. It was a good excuse to get outside, learn a new surveying technique, and get to see James Madison’s house.

And then it snowed. And not a little bit of snow, but a lot of snow. So much snow that we couldn’t even get to the site we were supposed to be surveying for two days.


Montpelier, James Madison’s Plantation home, Orange, VA

This, however, gave us plenty of time to tour Montpelier and even go on a side trip to Monticello. We did the two tours almost back to back, with a brief break in the middle for lunch. But it allowed us to do a direct comparison between the two historic houses, their tours, and their archaeology programs and interpretation. In general, the histories of people other than James Madison were incorporated better at Montpelier than the stories of people other than Thomas Jefferson were incorporated at Monticello. The interpretation at Montpelier felt more inclusive and was better at presenting a picture of the plantation as a whole.


Archaeologists Kate Deeley and Stefan Woehkle metal detecting at Montpelier. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Archaeology

Once the snow melted enough to begin the metal detecting, we bundled up and headed out to the woods. The snow that covered the site had been shoveled to the side by the archaeological interns who are employed at Montpelier. The next step for the site was to lay out a grid, creating 10 foot by 10 foot squares marked by orange flags. Once the whole grid was laid about (about 100 square feet), we began the metal detecting process. There were two professional metal detectorists, who were teaching three of us who had never detected before what to do. Metal detecting seems like a simple enough process, but no one tells you about the background noise you hear when you put that headset on. It is very loud, and hearing the difference between background noise and an actual metal object is not easy. But there is a difference in the sounds, and that was what we were looking for. We covered the 10 foot by 10 foot squares one at a time – marking all of the hits (that’s when you hear a metal object) with blue flags. Then the professional metal detectorist would come in and check our work. In general, it seemed that those of us who were learning could hear about half of the metal objects that were in each square. But we improved as the day went on.┬áThe snow continued to melt, and by the end of the day, the site was covered in blue flags and an ever-increasing amount of mud. The flags were then counted, and recorded on a site map, so we would know how many hits were in each 10 x 10 foot square.

This data will be used to determine where excavation units should be located during our advanced archaeological field school this summer.

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The James Holliday House and Family

Source: Dee Levister through the Kunte-Kinte Alex Haley Foundation

James Holliday c. mid 19th century Source: Dee Levister through the Kunte-Kinte Alex Haley Foundation

To put our last post into context, I’ve put together a brief history of the James Holliday, his family and their property in Annapolis.

The property on which the James Holliday sits was originally part of the land surveyed and designated for Governor Francis Nicholson in 1696. Between 1700 and 1850, the property changed hands six times and it appears that the James Holliday House was built between 1784 and 1819. Finally, in 1850, James Holliday purchased two lots within this land for $650, which included the still-standing brick townhouse.

James Holliday was born around 1809 and was a slave in southern Anne Arundel County until 1819. James Holliday worked for the U.S. Naval Academy as a steward messenger for every superintendent from 1845, when the Academy opened in Annapolis, until his death in 1882. When James Holliday died his property was left to his daughter Eleanora. Eleanora Holliday married Benjamin Briscoe, a sailor for the US Navy, in 1883 and they lived in the house with their children until 1923 when Eleanora died. When Eleanora passed away, she left the house and property to her daughters, Eleanor and Lucy Louis.

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