Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Portions of Pawns from James Madison's Chess Set(s) Found

Archaeologists Uncover "Lost" Chess Pawns Used by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson [Excerpted]
4:14 p.m. EST, February 2, 2011

MONTPELIER — History lies hidden beneath the lush turf of Montpelier, James Madison's lifelong home. Montpelier archaeologists recently discovered one long-kept secret that had not seen the light of day in nearly two centuries: portions of two pawns from James Madison's chess set, most likely the same set Madison and Thomas Jefferson used in their many chess matches at Montpelier. The discovery provided enough detail for researchers to determine exactly what Madison's chess set looked like, and led curators to purchase an identical, authentic 18th-century ivory chess set. Visitors can now see the "new" chess set on display in the Drawing Room of Madison's home in Orange, Va.

"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," said Montpelier President Michael C. Quinn. "Each new discovery and acquisition brings us closer to knowing the Father of the Constitution and the woman who inspired the term 'First Lady.'

Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge once remarked that the third and fourth presidents often engaged in epic chess matches. According to Coolidge, "…[Jefferson] was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not … many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of 'four hour games' with Mr. Madison."

Archaeologists discovered the pawns, nestled in the rich Orange County clay, in an ongoing excavation. "The moment we uncovered the pawns, we knew we had found something very special," said Dr. Matthew Reeves, Montpelier director of archaeology. "When we pulled them from the ground, we were so excited. At first we thought these might be parts of a sewing bobbin made from bone, but upon closer examination, it was clear these pieces were a treasure from the past reflecting James Madison's intellectual pursuits and social life. 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."

I've got no images of the excavated partial pawns.

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