Slave Lives, Archaeology of

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Slave Lives, Archaeology of




The archaeology of slavery is a branch of historical archaeology focused on the analysis and interpretation of slavery through the use of material remains. The archaeology of slavery was originally referred to as plantation archaeology because the excavations were concentrated on former plantations throughout the southern United States. In the early days of plantation archaeology, the primary focus was on the maintenance and promotion of nationally significant historic sites; however, as a result of a movement to develop a deeper understanding of ethnicity and diversity within American society, in the late 1960s there was a shift in the field to include a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. Archaeological studies of slavery provide information on the living conditions of enslaved people by looking at housing and household composition, diet, personal possessions, household goods, health care, and other aspects of their material world. This subset of historical archaeology is used to understand the human experience of African American life and positively contribute to the ever-expanding notion of black cultural identity. Although the first archaeological sites that focused on slavery were in the southern United States, there has been a great deal of work conducted in other parts of the African diaspora, including such regions as Central and South America and the Caribbean.


Early archaeological interpretation took its lead from traditional history. Much of the analysis was based on the search for general patterns that reinforced accepted notions of the experience of slavery. These early sites highlighted archaeology as a method to fill in the gaps of historical analysis with the use of artifacts. The archaeology of slavery, however, shifted from a general perspective of plantation life to the examination of specific enslaved communities.

The archaeological study of plantations has begun to employ an anthropological methodology known as critical theory. As an ideology, critical theory encourages movement beyond the boundaries of academia into the community. Critical theory is an approach that engages contemporary social issues in various ways. The form of critical analysis used in the archaeology of slavery is a form of activist archaeology that recognizes and supports the role of descendant communities in order for them to retrieve histories from their own perspectives. The archaeology of slavery has become much more visible to the public, and the interpretations and contributions the field makes take into consideration groups of people traditionally marginalized.

The shift toward a more collaborative research methodology that allows archaeology to become a respected voice in public discourses about contemporary notions of race and racism was a direct response to the events surrounding the African Burial Ground project in New York City in the early 1990s. The political struggles between the local African American community and archaeologists marked a turning point in the relationship between the archaeological community and the public. The practice of engaged or activist archaeology became synonymous with the field as a result of this site.

In an effort to understand the lives of enslaved communities, archaeologists investigate the multiple meanings of environment and space. Plantation landscapes often include areas of domestic production, also known as slave quarters, and other sites where the everyday activities of enslaved communities took place. These household-related activities included basic food preparation, child-care and health care, laundry, clothing repair, recreational storytelling, music making, and game playing. These quartering areas ultimately became sites to strengthen social relationships and ensure the survival of the enslaved community.

In 2001 Maria Franklin first proposed a black feminist archaeology that would contribute to a deeper analysis of multiple forms of oppression and pay closer attention to the role of gender by highlighting the unique experience of enslaved women. A black feminist approach emphasizes how gender and race affect a specific community. This approach also demystifies contemporary misconceptions of the role of enslaved women within the household, taking into account the fluid nature of the enslaved family and alternative ways to understand how enslaved women were integral yet not solely responsible to black cultural production. When archaeological investigations of plantation societies during the colonial and antebellum period have focused on households, there is an emphasis on spaces dominated by women. However, enslaved communities performed domestic tasks communally. A gendered approach identifies how enslaved women played an essential role in social and cultural reproduction and acknowledges the role of gender and race in analyzing the multiple forms of oppression experienced by all members of the enslaved community. The result of this methodology inherently serves as a means to produce holistic and politically aware accounts of the African-American past.


The archaeology of the African diaspora has expanded the scope of research and established a dialogue between Africa and the Americas during the slave trade era. This dialogue has allowed for a comparative and transnational methodology that produces a new direction in the archaeological interpretation of slavery. Current trends in African diaspora archaeology acknowledge the complexity of how Africans in the Americas negotiated their identities and incorporated aspects of African culture in the African experience throughout the diaspora. Archaeologists also recognize ways in which the diaspora influenced the continent of Africa. Archaeologists therefore, are considering the global dimensions of African cultural transformations throughout the modern era.

The social memory of people of African descent is linked to the experience of slavery, from the way a community shaped its built environment, the material remains of social and cultural activity, and how the distant past acts as the foundation of contemporary notions of black identity. The artifacts, architecture, and archaeological deposits at different sites allow for a close and unique way of looking at the institution of slavery. The archaeology of slavery has moved beyond the boundaries of plantations in the southern United States. After more than twenty years of excavations, the conversation between archaeologists working in the Caribbean, United States, and Western Africa has resulted in an enhanced study of the system of slavery. These links are essential to the future of the field; the things that have been shared between sites across the diaspora and continental Africa have led to a more holistic approach to the study of African people.

SEE ALSO African American Studies; African Diaspora; African Studies; Archaeology; Burial Grounds; Burial Grounds, African; Collective Memory; Critical Theory; Feminism; Plantation; Slavery


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Whitney Battle-Baptiste