Archaeologists recently discovered fragments of two pawns during an excavation at the Orange County estate of the fourth president and architect of the Bill of Rights. They initially mistook the quarter-inch diameter tops for sewing bobbins, but subsequently determined they were fragments of chess pieces.
Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at the rural, 2,650-acre estate, called the pieces "a treasure from the past reflecting James Madison's intellectual pursuits and social life."
Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, once remarked that the third and fourth presidents often engaged in epic chess matches. She wrote that her grandfather was a very good chess player in his youth.
"There were not many who could get the better of him," Coolidge wrote in her recollections, compiled in 1853.
The fragments provided enough detail for researchers to determine what Madison's chess set looked like. Curators then bought an identical 18th-century ivory chess set, which is now on display in Montpelier's drawing room.
Montpelier was Madison's lifelong home. He spent his childhood at the estate and retired there in 1817 after his presidency. He died in 1836 at age 85 and was buried on the grounds. The mansion underwent a $25 million architectural restoration starting in 2008 and is now complete.