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Archaeological dig finds historical chess pieces

February 5, 2011 12:35 am


Visitors to Montpelier now can see the 'new' chess set on display in the drawing room of James Madison's home in Orange. It's shown on Madison's original gaming table. lo020511madsionchess03.jpg

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Montpelier curators unveiled the 'new' Madison chess set in the estate's drawing room this week. The game is displayed on one of the Madisons' original gaming tables, discovered in 2009.



Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who shared interests in education, architecture and politics, loved to match wits.

Often, the architect of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Declaration of Independence dueled over a chess board.

And now, archaeologists at Madison's home in Orange County say they've unearthed fragments of a chess set they think Madison used when playing his friend from neighboring Albemarle County.

Archaeologists recently found fragments of two pawns while investigating part of Madison's Montpelier estate. Initially, they thought the pieces' quarter-inch tops were sewing bobbins, but then figured out they were shards of chessmen.

Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at the 2,650-acre estate, called the pieces "a treasure from the past reflecting James Madison's intellectual pursuits and social life."

Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, remarked that the third and fourth presidents regularly engaged in epic chess matches. She said her grandfather was an excellent chess player in his youth.

"There were not many who could get the better of him," Coolidge wrote in her letterbook, compiled in 1853.

Reeves described the discovery.

"The moment we uncovered the pawns, we knew we had found something very special," Reeves said. "When we pulled them from the ground, we were so excited."

The fragments provided sufficient detail for researchers to determine what Madison's chess set looked like. Curators bought an identical 18th-century ivory set, which is now on view in Montpelier's drawing room for visitors to see.

The chess set and an "in-progress" game of loo are displayed on the Madisons' original gaming tables, discovered in 2009. The couple's furnishings were scattered more than 150 years ago when Dolley Madison sold Montpelier after her husband died.

"Countless visitor accounts told us of James Madison's love for a good chess match, but we didn't know what his set looked like," Reeves said.

Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison--who created the role of "first lady" during their years living in the White House--greatly enjoyed the card and board games of their time.

Madison preferred intellectual games, such as chess.

His wife, famed for her outgoing personality, liked social card games, such as loo--similar to the modern-day game of hearts. Records even show that she placed a few bets.

In an 1803 letter, Samuel Harrison Smith writes to Margaret Bayard Smith of his "mortification at putting the money of Mrs. Madison into my pocket" after he won a game of loo.

"The discovery of the pawns is a wonderful example of how Montpelier's archaeologists and curators are together rediscovering James and Dolley Madison and their plantation," Montpelier President Michael C. Quinn said. "Each new discovery and acquisition brings us closer to knowing [them]."

--The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

Montpelier was James Madison's lifelong home. He spent his boyhood there and retired to the estate in 1817 after his presidency. He died in 1836 at age 85, and is interred on the grounds.

The mansion, which was greatly enlarged by the du Pont family in the 20th century, underwent a $25 million architectural restoration starting in 2008.

Set in the scenic Piedmont four miles south of the town of Orange, Montpelier is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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