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Montpelier Archaeologists Employ New Technology to Reveal Slave Experience

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Archaeologists have discovered old slave paths at Montpelier Archaeologists have discovered old slave paths at Montpelier
Matthew Reeves Matthew Reeves
James Madison's Montpelier James Madison's Montpelier
The archaeologists use lidar technology to uncover the old paths The archaeologists use lidar technology to uncover the old paths
Reeves plans to bring metal detectors out to the paths Reeves plans to bring metal detectors out to the paths
ORANGE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) -

Archaeologists at James Madison's Montpelier are getting a glimpse into the property's past by using new technology that allows them to see things they’ve never before been able to see.

"This is a dream come true for me; this is Christmas in April," says Matthew Reeves, Montpelier's director of archaeology.

This technology - called lidar - allows archaeologists to see paths through the woods that date back to the 1700s. They say these trails were walked every day by slaves.

Lidar technology uses infrared light beams and works similarly to radar. You can see through the trees, and spot features like mill races, home sites, old roads, and foot paths.

"What lidar does is it allows us to produce a high-resolution terrain map of the landscape," says Reeves.

The technology has led Reeves and his team to new insights, including many of the paths created by slaves. Reeves hopes to refurbish these areas and give visitors a more authentic experience that offers additional insight into the lives of the slaves who once lived on this plantation.

“What we’re able to do is capture some really subtle features on the landscape that nobody has known about since the 1820s when the enslaved community lived and worked on this plantation and really in a lot of ways what we’re able to capture is the footpaths, the road networks that were here during the Madison era, and then reconstruct those,” says Reeves.

The goal now is to restore these newfound trails.

"What we wanna do specifically if we have visitors using the landscape, walking on it, we want to have them use the same paths that the enslaved community would've used," says Reeves.

He also says his team is just scratching the surface of what they hope to accomplish with the help of lidar.

"Where you've got paths, it's likely you've got other buildings that we haven't found yet so it's just opening up a whole new window for all this," says Reeves.

Reeves says his crew plans to use metal detectors along some of these newly discovered paths in hopes of finding more pieces of history below the surface.

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