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Unearthing Secret America

 

Photo Brown Marley Brown
Send questions before October 22nd

Marley Brown is Director of Archaeological Research at Colonial Williamsburg and Research Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary.

Brown received his Bachelor's and Doctoral degrees in Anthropology from Brown University.

Brown uses archaeological research to understand the development of inequality and cultural pluralism within early English colonial societies of the New World. He has been studying African-American archaeology since the mid-1970s when he worked on the late eighteenth-century free Black site of Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Since 1982 Brown has been examining the rural and urban landscapes of slavery within Tidewater Virginia with emphasis on the problem of slave-master relations and the material lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants. In addition to research at the Atkinson site, Brown has directed fieldwork at four slave quarters in Virginia and in Bermuda and on two ante-bellum era slave houses in Williamsburg.

     

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Brown Responds:

Sheron Evans asks:
When I was younger, years ago, I visited Monticello with my parents and was impressed by all of Jefferson's inventions. What we were told at that time was that Jefferson built the underground tunnels so that the slaves could travel around the plantation to the big house out of the bad weather. Why has the thinking changed? What caused you to arrive at the conclusion that he was hiding them from view, instead of being ingenious and considerate?

Brown's response:
I would say that your are correct in suggesting that Jefferson was, indeed, "being ingenious." But why restrict the understanding of that to mere practical solutions? Why can't we see Jefferson involved in more expansive "social engineering" of the kind discussed in the program, as well as in the more conventional sort that emphasizes convenience?

Students of the design and layout of Virginia's early plantations have long recognized the extent to which planters used architectural elements and their spatial positioning to send messages of all different kinds; messages intended for their own sort as well as for those they considered their inferiors. Over the past thirty years, architectural historians have made a convincing case for the active role of building design and layout, and garden and landscape planning, in structuring the relationships between the people who lived and labored in these planter houses and those who visited.

We are all very familiar with this same use of architecture today, to signal social position and exclusivity, for example. One prominent contemporary example is the so-called "alpha house" or "McMansion" that increasingly dominates the subdivisions of affluent suburbia. It should come as no surprise, then, that slaveholders like Jefferson may very well have employed elements of the architectural grammar at their disposal to "hide" the presence of their enslaved work force. Any tour of a grand European country house will reveal the hidden passages intended to transport the servants from their positions "downstairs," as it were, to "upstairs" serving situations (Robert Altman's Gosford Park is a revealing recent illustration from the world of cinema).

In a place where domestic chores were performed by enslaved Africans and their descendants, rather than by free servants, it seems eminently reasonable to conclude that Jefferson - like his contemporaries - was consciously employing architectural elements to disguise the presence of his slaves, if not also, as some scholars argue, to control them in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

One of the points made in the program was that this spatial separation actually begins with fences erected between the places where masters and slaves lived, as we believe occurred at the Atkinson site in the late seventeenth century. By Jefferson's time, wealthy slaveholders had become much more sophisticated in the way they used architecture and spatial design to achieve such separation. But facility with this kind of design - which Jefferson clearly possessed - does not necessarily mean that he was trying to deny that he owned slaves, anymore than a wealthy English lord was trying to pretend that he had no servants simply because the interior layout of his house provided separate spaces for their movement from kitchen to dining room.

For more information on the question of architectural and landscape design and its impact on the relationship between slaves and their masters I recommend these three works:

Dell Upton 1988 White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. In Material Life in America, 1600-1860, edited By Robert St. George, Boston: Northeastern University Press, pages 357-370.

Terrence Epperson 1990 Race and the Disciplines of the Plantation. Historical Archaeology. 24(4):29-36.

John M. Vlach 1993 Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. University of North Carolina Press.

James Sebolt asks:
Were there such places as "slave grave yards", a burial site just for slaves on a colonial plantation?

Brown's response:
Although archaeologists have devoted most of their effort to studying the remains of slave quarters, they have been called upon to excavate the final resting places of slaves in both plantation and urban settings. Slaves did, indeed, have their own cemeteries whether on prominent plantations like Jefferson's Monticello or Washington's Mt. Vernon, or in what are now major metropolitan areas like New York and Philadelphia. In fact the best known "slave grave yard," the African Burial Ground, was found during construction of a new federal building in Manhattan. Similarly, the process of land development has brought to light the locations of many slave cemeteries all over the American South. In some cases, these sites are preserved in place. In others, the burials are excavated and the remains reinterred elsewhere in order to make way for new roads or housing developments. For many years this was a process of relocation that did not involve any study by archaeologists or physical anthropologists. But in recent years, students of skeletal biology and African-American historical archaeology have joined to create the field known as "bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora."

Research in bioarchaeology takes advantage of the larger samples of skeletal material afforded by cemetery relocation projects in order to investigate questions concerning the health, fertility, and morbidity of past slave populations (as contrasted with purely forensic examinations of individual skeletons that cannot generalize effectively about such issues). Careful analyses of populations of slave skeletons have revealed important evidence about their origins and physical life histories, providing significant new scientific data on disease, nutrition, and health, and mortality that both complements and supplements discoveries about diet and standard of living made at sites where enslaved Africans and African Americans once lived.

Archaeologists have also learned about the importance of ritual and belief systems from evaluating the mortuary customs of slaves, notably through studying what are called "grave goods" (artifacts buried with the deceased). For more information about "slave grave yards" and their contribution to the field of African diasporic bioarchaeology, as well as the ethical and political issues surrounding the study and preservation of these cemeteries, I would recommend the comprehensive review essay by Dr. Michael Blakey entitled "Bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas: Its Origin and Scope (Annual Reviews in Anthropology 30:387-422). A more popular summary of this important area of scholarship can be found in the videocassette Slavery's buried past (originally broadcast on PBS in 1996.)

Jackie asks:
What's one of the most surprising things "slave archeology" has revealed about life in that period?

Brown's response:
Through its unexpected discoveries, the archaeology of slavery continues to challenge many aspects of the conventional wisdom regarding slave life. An important early example of such "surprise" was the recovery of gun parts at coastal Florida and Georgia plantations in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Ywone Edwards Ingram mentioned similar finds made at Virginia sites to Alan Alda during their conversation at the reconstructed Carter's Grove slave quarter). At first glance, it might seem foolhardy for masters to be arming their slaves in areas where enslaved Africans and their descendants made up the great majority of the population. Providing guns to slaves was also, quite literally, against the law of the day. But it turns out that the practice of giving firearms to slaves so that they could hunt was widespread.

Masters could keep down the cost of rations by providing slaves the means to supplement their diet, a strategy that made sense in view of the overall system of social control in place within most slave-holding regions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The risk of an armed resistance had already been substantially reduced by a complex set of emotional and psychological relationships as well as by the threat of actual physical restraint and punishment. Thus, the recovery of gun parts at slave quarters in the 1970s, surprising as it seemed then, made sense in terms of the larger complex of slave-master relations, and particularly the well-established techniques used by slaveholders to maintain control over their slaves.

It was also surprising to archaeologists at the time that the same slaves who hunted with guns cooked and consumed the resulting game in ways that combined elements of traditional West African food preparation with objects of European industrial manufacture. More recently, archaeologists have made a good case for the fact that slaves actually selected types of English-made pottery with specific designs that made sense to them in terms of design motifs and symbols also of West African origin. The influence of West Africa in the daily lives of slaves is hardly unexpected, but what continues to surprise is the increasing range and complexity of the cultural creations that archaeologists have been able to identify in the artifacts left behind on slave sites. Although their real significance may never be fully understood, many of these artifacts, and the African cultural continuities they reveal, must surely have helped enslaved Africans and their descendants endure one of the most cruel and inhumane institutions imaginable. No doubt more "surprises" are in store as archaeologists increase their sample of excavated slave sites and, at the same time, become more systematic in the way they analyze materials recovered from them.

For specific discussions of these "surprises," I refer you to two publications, among many:

Fairbanks, Charles H. 1984 The Plantation Archaeology of the Southeastern Coast. Historical Archaeology. 18(1): 1-14.

Wilkie, Laurie 1999 Evidence of African Cultural Continuities in the Material Culture of Clifton Plantation, Bahamas. In Jay Haviser (ed.). African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.

 

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