BBQ pits in archaeological studies
In a first conversation with Virginia BBQ Scholar Joseph Haynes, he shared with me how a BBQ pit was found during an archaeological excavation at James Madison Montpelier, when I described how the pit walls for an earth dug pit, get like plaster or brick after a bbq cook. I thought this was pretty interesting, but I would not have thought initially an earth dug pit would last over 100 years with discernable evidence which I overlooked in Haynes’ book. After thinking about this further and thinking about brick structures, I realized the earth dug pit could last 200 years easily since it was used extensively and how early bbq pits were set afire before cooking forming a really hard side wide and floor. The hardened walls would last a long time if you think about how long a terra(clay) cotta sewer pipe can last in the ground under an old house, if tree roots don’t penetrate. A lot of old literature, said wood would be placed in the pit and lit on fire. Once the wood burned down to embers, then the carcasses were laid and the meat had to be turned to prevent burning from my understanding as a cook, while a small fire outside of the pit was used to get a fresh supply of hot embers. While the enslave did not record their own history, including, they left so many clues of their significant contributions. The contributions are being validated by science and technology in the fields of archeology and using approaches like 3d scanning.
Montpelier is the plantation house of the Madison family, including the fourth President of the United States James Madison, and his wife Dolley. The Madisons were owners of enslaved Africans and it was these people whom did the barbecues on the plantation. Like many of the presidents, over a quarter of all American presidents to be exact- were owners of enslaved people during their lifetimes and eight held enslaved people while in office. In two recent youtube recordings on my personal channel, Joseph Haynes and I noted that barbecues were commonly held on the 4th of July, Christmas, and for political rallies. During an excavation at Montpelier, a roasting pit was found in the Southeast Duplex-Home project area to be 7.9-8.7’ in length, and the median depth at 1.5’ (18”) is consistent to the depth used to separate the embers to the animal carcass for bbq purposes. It is quite common to see a distance from 18” to 24” as the separation distance from the bed of coals to the meat. From email correspondence with archaeologists at Montepelier(montpelier.org) after speaking with Joe, the pit was estimated to be filled in between 1800 and 1850. Due to the size of this pit, my belief is that this roasting pit primary’s purpose was for events. From my understanding, I doubt the enslaved would hardly use this pit for their own purpose, as they would go to the woods so they could have privacy and have their own outlet, in an act of resistance. Why you say resistance, sometime the enslave would steal hogs from the plantation to BBQ. The fire-hardened clay and charred wood within the pit are consistent with what would be found in a plantation era pit and the prevalent nature of clay base soils in the southern united states. From my understanding, this earth dug pit was not simply a one animal cooker, it was multiple. I can see the pit overlaid with hogs, steer, muttons, goat, and poultry. Per being on the countless end of oral history, it is from my understanding the earth dug pit is dug for cook per the size of the animal and/or the number of animals needed to be cook. However, a better explanation for depth is due to the fact they were during open pit cooking with no roof. I cook at a slightly deeper depth at 24” but my pits are covered with roofing tin to help keep the heat in, thus reducing the heat loss, so you make adjustments in other ways not to burn the meat. Also, if one fashion pits out of cinder blocks, cinder blocks are 8” tall. I have seen people cook pitcooked bbq on a two cinder block high structure but the preference really goes down to cook and his/her approach to heat management. The reinforcement of the earth dug pit walls at Montpelier could have been reinforced by hardened clay to prevent water seepage as well. The enslaved knew the clay could get rock hard under heat as some of them had experience making bricks for a fireplace, so this principle was still valid to the bbq pit.
In email communication with Montepelier’ archaeologists, the location of the bbq pit was about 100 feet from where events were conducted. My explanation for the location is so flies will not interrupt the event, as flies like to congregate at the end of any barbecue cook or grilling, in the direct vicinity where the cooking is occurring. Furthermore, the position of the trench in the South Yard, is at the lowest point in the 6-building complex that make up the South Yard – and prevailing breezes would take the smoke away from the back lawn where the Madisons’ and their guests were being served by the enslaved community.
The discovery of the pit is very interesting but as person of science, the 3d scanning of the pit
is amazing with the rendering done by UVA's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities(https://iath.virginia.edu/). In the picture, you see the excavation and rendering to the left. To the right, in the image you an earth dug pit in Shreveport and you can see how the walls became hard after the first cook. Only a small section of the pit was excavated, because a tree was planted in the trench many years ago that impacted the excavation, the integrity of the pit walls similarly to a clay sewer pipe, and the continuity to uncover the rest of the pit. This combination of technology, archaeology, and bbq pits provides more evidence of the bbq culture that America love was created by the hands of enslaved Africans, because the people doing the work on plantations whether journals record this, are the enslaved. More information on the excavation to understand the enslaved life can be found at Homes Apart Excavation of Montpelier’s Southeast and Southwest Duplex Homes for Enslaved Domestic Servants by Mark A. Trickett, March 2013. While the enslaved stories were not heavily documented the receipts to their work and impact is duly noted if one can understand and process the evidence left. So much of America’s foundation was created by the hands of the enslaved, and they were more than laborers with their hands, they were the architects and engineers with their brains.
P.S. Please if you wish to use or reference my work, please give me or the people I reference the proper credit.