The Archaeology and History of Slavery.

Slavery, which forms a major part of human history, has affected every section of human society worldwide. Archaeology breaks the complexities of slavery through unearthing the remnants, and reconstruction of past societies. The origin of slavery is subjective. As long as one can trace back the history and origin of human civilization, so long can be the evidence of slavery. A bleak attempt can be seen in the Code of Hammurabi from ancient Mesopotamia 1754BCE which discusses the legal framework governing slavery. In this article, an attempt has been made to study the history of slavery through archaeology in the context of African- American Slavery.

It is recorded in the late 1980’s of an archaeological discovery of artifacts from a slave quarter at Jordan Plantation near Houston, Texas. The items found varied from single objects, the seashell beads, doll parts, chalk, bird skulls, bottles, and bases of iron cooking pots which hold tremendous significance in the context analysis. The diggings reveal the Ethnographic and historical evidence and depict a correlation between modern-day Yoruba diviners for healing and other rituals and components in a West African-style conjurer’s kit.

A quest to explore cultural diversity and empowering African Americans has impacted in the research of African American history, religion, folklore, and material culture. The timeline in archaeological research can be summarized as 1930s witnessed research on post-European contact sites in North America; the first excavation of an African American slave quarter took place in 1968, and only in 1970s did the archaeologists begin to explore the broad ranging issues of anthropology, social history of slavery. The factors affecting the research can be briefly examined as the context of everyday plantation life, social relationships between the planters and slaves, and the process of culture change because of contact between European Americans and African Americans.

This approach of an interdisciplinary aspects comprising folklore, anthropology, and material culture in view of archaeology and history is fundamental to elaborate upon the history of slave life in the American South.

The discovery at Jordan Plantation is crucial in various ways. An abandoned quarter reveals the tangible signs of a West African spiritual tradition, often under the harsh conditions of bound labor. Archaeologists have derived an understanding of studying materials to discover the intangible aspects of culture. The approach of context-based analysis of archaeological remnants at the slave sites reveal what is absent in the documents about the slavery in African American life. The structure footing of their homes, the broken ceramic bowls and the objects for spiritual worship are pieces of evidence in the discovery of history of slavery.

In the study of the history of slavery, historians often deal with slave demographics and community, acculturation, resistance, master- slave relationships and the economics of slavery. Given the depth of research, archaeology provides data to help and guide historians. The study of slavery in West African, African American and in the New World are fundamentally based on archaeology. In a brief outline, excavations reveal the material life of slaves, their mode of housing, personal possessions, tools and food. The study of these components attempts to explain the social, religious, and political atmosphere in which the slaves lived.

This method of dismantling the history of slavery through archaeological research has been difficult for historians. The plantation sites, the residences of slaves, their buildings and documentation are difficult to interpret since they are very few. The very first excavation which took place was at Carter’s Grove Plantation in James City country. A brief outline of Estimated Dates of slavery occupancy and excavation from a “Report on Exploratory Excavations at Carter’s Grove plantations, James City Country, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library.

NameLocationEstimated dates of Slave occupancyDate of Excavation
Kingsmill QuarterJames City Country1620-18001972-1976
Jordan’s PointPrince George Country1620- 16301993-1995
Utopia QuoterJames City Country1700- 17201972-1976
Report on Exploratory Excavations

This approach of archaeology-based history of slavery is intellectually well built. Among the many countries where slavery existed Africa, The New World, India, and the Colonized countries show highest amount of slavery which was then prevalent for trade and commerce.