Dirt tells tale of two presidents

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After digging around James Madison's sprawling Virginia estate, Matthew Reeves, an archaeologist, has determined that the former president spent a lot of time and money preparing for guests to arrive.

Anticipating visits from hundreds of academics and dignitaries once he returned home from the White House, Madison undertook massive efforts to revamp his estate. He directed his slaves to build an artificial lawn, almost unheard of at the time, by moving thousands of tons of earth.

He also built several structures on his 5,000 acres, including a terraced garden and a neoclassical temple that sat over an ice house.

"They're going to be receiving guests and having parties," Reeves said. "They're essentially making the family home not just into a functioning plantation, but something that would be a destination for visitors." As the head of archaeology at Madison's Montpelier estate, Reeves has started to research the gardens and lawns as part of a reconstruction project.

And like a lot of archaeologists trying to reconstruct early American estates, he is finding that these landscapes reveal a lot about life in the 18th and 19th centuries.

By studying layers of soil at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology, has concluded that Jefferson, like many Chesapeake Bay farmers at the time, abandoned tobacco plants for wheat fields just as the French Revolution crippled food production in Europe and created strong demand for wheat.

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