Archaeology and Archaeologists

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Archaeology and Archaeologists

The field of historical archaeology emerged in the United States in the mid-twentieth century out of a national preservationist movement that sought to celebrate the achievements of white America. Archaeological investigations at Jamestown, Plymouth, and Williamsburg, as well as Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, provided evidence for researchers to reconstruct the great places and venerate the great figures in American history. The experience of African Americans was all but overlooked in the early years of these endeavors. However, the civil rights movement motivated researchers to reconsider the narrow Eurocentric focus of their studies, and many historical archaeologists began to explore the black experience in the United States. Archaeological interest in the African diaspora grew with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The act, implemented by Congress to preserve and protect sites of national and historical significance, included broad language that opened the door for historical archaeologists to receive federal funding for investigations aimed at delineating the lives of historically disenfranchised groups, including African Americans.

Early historical archaeological research into the African diaspora focused heavily on investigating the lives of enslaved peoples in the Americas. The coercive structures of New World slavery stifled literacy among American slaves. As a result, those interested in understanding the history of slavery and plantation life have had to rely on the small number of firsthand accounts written by slaves or the biased reporting of literate whites, usually slave owners of the elite planter class. The methods of historical archaeology, therefore, offered a unique opportunity to explore the lives of enslaved peoples who left few written records. Using architectural evidence, human skeletal remains, and broken bits of pottery, glass, and metal, historical archaeologists have helped reconstruct the African-American experience and shed new light on a people who have often been silenced in traditional histories.

In the late 1960s Charles H. Fairbanks (1984) undertook the first systematic excavations of slave quarter sites at the Kingsley plantation on the northeast coast of Florida. Fairbanks recovered evidence of house construction techniques, diet, and ceramic usage that provided insights into the material conditions of slaves in the South. Fairbanks also used the information to challenge written accounts of slavery and plantation life. For example, Fair-banks recovered gunflints and evidence of bullet manufacture from the slave quarters, which clearly indicated that slaves at Kingsley plantation possessed and used firearms. The discovery was surprising because legal codes in the South specifically outlawed gun ownership by slaves. The excavations at Kingsley also uncovered animal bones, including those of raccoon, deer, and rabbit, which indicated that wild animal species made up a large proportion of the slaves' diet. Fairbanks speculated that the slaves at Kingsley hunted wild game and used the meat to supplement the weekly food rations given to them by the plantation owner. The evidence shows that slaves were active agents in shaping their material world and were not merely dependent on the paternalistic controls of the planter class.

Yet Fairbanks and others were primarily interested in discovering "Africanisms"material culture evidence for the survival of West and West Central African cultural traditions in the Americas. Cowry shells and glass beads, used in West and West Central Africa as currency and forms of adornment and brought to the Americas by African slaves, became markers that helped archaeologists identify sites once occupied by enslaved peoples. However, it soon became clear that slaves brought few material possessions with them from Africa and that historical archaeologists would have to refine their search for surviving African cultural artifacts in the Americas. They focused on the use of European materials in distinctly African ways.

Studying ceramic vessels recovered from the slave quarters at Cannon's Point plantation in the Georgia Sea Islands, John Solomon Otto (1984) found that slaves used a variety of imported European ceramics. However, Otto found that bowls, rather than plates, represented a disproportionate number of the ceramics from the slave quarter sites. According to Otto, the large number of bowls indicated that slaves at Cannon's Point pursued West and West Central African culinary practices, which stressed the eating of stewed foods from bowls rather than roasts from plates. Animal bones recovered from a slave quarter at Monticello also show that the cuts of meat used by slaves were consistent with stewing.

In the Caribbean island of Barbados, in the early 1970s, Jerome S. Handler and Frederick W. Lange (1978) developed another pioneering program focused on the archaeology of slavery and plantation life. Unlike Fairbanks, who studied domestic dwellings, Handler and Lange investigated the slave burial ground at the Newton sugar estate. They sought to understand the demography, health conditions, social life, and mortuary practices of plantation slaves in Barbados. Handler and Lange identified mortuary practices consistent with West and West Central African cultural traditions, including the peripheral placement of infants and children in the cemetery and the body orientations of the deceased. Moreover, the deceased were interred with grave goods, a common practice in West and West Central African mortuary rites. One individual, for example, was buried with a red clay tobacco pipe that had been produced in Africa and brought to Barbados by African slaves. However, most grave goods were of European manufacture. For example, white kaolin clay tobacco pipes, imported from Britain, were among the most prominent grave goods buried with the slaves at Newton. Yet rather than seeing the presence of European tobacco pipes as evidence that slaves in Barbados simply embraced European materials and customs, Handler and Lange stressed the blending of African and European cultural traditions. Thus, although slaves incorporated European tobacco pipes into their material world, they used them in distinctly African ways, as grave goods. Handler and Lange also scoured documentary sources to learn how slaves in Barbados acquired the kaolin clay tobacco pipes. By combining archaeological and documentary records, Handler and Lange were able to uncover an insidious reward-incentive system devised by whites in Barbados to elicit a favorable slave disposition. Tobacco and tobacco pipes were key items in that system.

The search for Africanisms continued in the United States. James Deetz (1977) investigated life at the freedman site Parting Ways in Massachusetts. As with Handler and Lange, Deetz focused not on the direct retention of African material culture but on the use of European goods in an African manner. For example, Deetz examined architecture at Parting Ways in order to show that the occupants recreated West and West Central African housing styles. Known to architectural historians as shotgun houses, the dwellings reflect an underlying African cognitive model that used twelve-foot dimensions in house construction. Although the glass windows and shingled roof of the structure gave it the appearance of a typical New Englandstyle dwelling, the mental principles that shaped the size and spatial arrangement of the house had their origins in Africa. Root cellars, an architectural feature common on slave dwelling sites in the United States, may also reflect the continuity of West and West Central African storage techniques.

Perhaps the best evidence for the retention of African cultural traditions in the Americas comes from the study of slave-made coarse earthenware ceramics. Known to archaeologists as colonoware, these vessels were originally thought to have been a variety of Native American pottery. Yet the ubiquity of colonoware on plantation sites soon made it clear that slaves in the South exploited local clay resources and fired their own variety of pots. Leland Ferguson (1991) compared colonoware vessels from South Carolina with West and West Central African pottery types in order to show that the manufacturing techniques and stylistic attributes of colonoware had their roots in Africa. Moreover, Ferguson examined ritualistic designs, such as stars and crosses, incised on the bases of colonoware pots. These decorated colonowares were often found on river bottoms near slave settlements. Ferguson argued that the designs were similar to cosmological symbols used by the Kongo of West Central Africa to celebrate water deities. According to Ferguson, the presence of such designs on colonoware pots recovered from river bottoms in South Carolina reflected the ongoing spiritual beliefs of the Kongo people, who made up a large number of South Carolina slaves. Matthew Emerson's (1994) study of clay tobacco pipes in the Chesapeake also showed that slaves manufactured these pipes and incised them with traditional West and West Central African motifs. The presence of African-derived iconography on colonoware pots and clay tobacco pipes helped enslaved peoples in the Americas maintain material and symbolic links to their African homeland. According to Ferguson and Emerson, the slaves' use of these items represented a subtle form of resistance to the customs, beliefs, and material world of whites.

Historical archaeologists have also explored the experience of African Americans in the post-Emancipation era. Theresa A. Singleton and Mark D. Bograd (1995) and Charles E. Orser (2004), for example, studied changing settlement patterns on postbellum plantations in order to show how black tenant farmers in the South distanced themselves from the oversight and control of the planter class. Other researchers have looked at the migration of African Americans to northern cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and studied the ways in which these new migrants used material culture to define social boundaries and challenge racist ideologies. Archaeologists have also studied the homes of famous African Americans, including Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois. Yet, perhaps the most important archaeological work in recent years has been the study of sites associated with the Underground Railroad. These sites have become locations for memorializing the African-American struggle for freedom and equality and for celebrating the endurance of African America.

See also African Burial Ground Project; Africanisms; Architecture, Vernacular; Historians/Historiography


Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.

Emerson, Matthew C. "Decorated Clay Tobacco Pipes from the Chesapeake: An African Connection." In Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake, edited by P. Shackel and B. Little. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Fairbanks, Charles H. "The Plantation Archaeology of the Southeastern Coast." Historical Archaeology 18 (1984): 114.

Ferguson, Leland G. Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 16501800. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Handler, Jerome S., and Frederick W. Lange. Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Orser, Charles E. Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Otto, John Solomon. Cannon's Point Plantation, 17941860: Living Conditions and Status Patterns in the Old South, "Studies in Historical Archaeology" series. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984.

Singleton, Theresa A., and Mark D. Bograd. The Archaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas, "Guides to the Archaeological Literature of the Immigrant Experience in America," no. 2. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The Society for Historical Archaeology, 1995.

frederick h. smith (2005)