Newsletter of the African-American Archaeology Network
Number 21, Spring 1998John P. McCarthy,
Some Thoughts on the Past, Present, and
Future of the Archaeology of the African Diaspora
Larry McKee, The Hermitage
Editor's Note: Larry's paper was presented as part of the
plenary session entitled "Where Are We and Where Do We Need
to Go" at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Society for Historical
I've felt the need to write about the future of archaeological
research on African-American life for a long time, and so I welcomed
the opportunity to put together this paper. Of course we should
all be thinking about the future of our research, no matter what
the topic we are dealing with -- it is always useful to consider
the sources of our scholarship, the present state of it, and the
directions it should take in order to answer the questions that
Twenty years ago historical archaeology embraced the study
of ethnicity. A number of researchers, including John Otto, Bob
Schuyler, Leland Ferguson, Charles Fairbanks, and Jim Deetz, recommended
exploration of the idea that different ethnic groups left "visible"
signatures in the archaeological record. The accepted view became
that searching out these signs of cultural distinction was very
much in keeping with one of the basic principles of the discipline:
that archaeological research on the recent past can reveal information
on people otherwise ignored and even dishonored by the usualwritten
sources of history. I feel very lucky to have been exposed to
these exciting ideas as a student back in the 1970s. Of course,
my excitement was mixed with a wide streak of naivete.
The goal of a lot of the field work generated from linking
ethnicity and archaeology was to dig up clear material evidence
of distinctive cultural traditions -- what a lot of us used to refer
to as "ethnic markers."
The ground, however, has proved to be less cooperative than
we expected. Even when particularly exotic items were recovered,
such as Chinese stoneware storage vessels on western mining camp
sites or cowrie shells at African-American habitation sites in
the slave South, the resulting interpretations seem little more
than a restatements of the obvious. These finds also seem trivial and
irrelevant in relation to the broader context of such sites, and
the important questions that we should be asking. Not only has
the excavated evidence turned out to be something different than
most of us expected, the contemporary world -- especially in terms
of the audience for our work -- has turned out to be a very complicated
place as well. Those of us studying the African-American past have
come to see that there is no such thing as scholarship isolated
from the world at large. In fact, this research has undergone what
I see as a thorough transformation away from internally-focused issues
of method and theory concerning ethnic visibility toward what
Michael Blakey has defined as "a new archaeology of public
engagement." Professor Blakey contends that in carrying out
excavations at sites associated with African Americans, we are
not just gathering new data and adding to our knowledge about the
past, we are also engaged in the ongoing social discourse about
the relations between European Americans and African Americans in
the present. Some seek to avoid such involvement; some of us embrace it
willingly and with true enthusiasm; we all need to accept that
this is where we stand, and where we should be standing.
But I also think in acknowledging this reorientation to public
engagement, we also need to keep in mind the very real advances
we have made in gathering and interpreting evidence. Over the past
decade the field has reached a kind of critical mass in terms of
the number of practitioners, the number of sites that have been,
and are being, excavated, and the public visibility of the results.
Many major historical attractions with an African-American presence
make use of archaeological research, either directly or indirectly, and
the savvy traveler has come to expect to see excavations or the
results of excavation in visiting these sites. The New York African
Burial Ground project served to turn up the heat in a variety of
ways, especially in terms of expanding public consciousness and
reminding the nation that slavery had a long history throughout
the nation, not just within the plantation South.
The archaeological study of the African-American experience
has fulfilled quite a bit of its early exciting promise, but I
would call this fulfillment far from complete. The biggest, most
frustrating shortcoming is that archaeological interpretations
have had little or no impact within traditional scholarship on
the African-American past. At best, there is a little bemused
acknowledgement here and there, often literally in footnotes, of
"intriguing finds." Has our work really been that much
out on the fringe? Or is this more due to a difference in who reads,
and who cites, what, and in related issues of academic turf disputes
and differences in professional cultures? It is also obviously
a question of how very different our sources -- essentially garbage
and ruins -- are from the written record. It is hard to match up even
the most interesting house lot assemblage with the power and eloquence of
something like the writings of Frederick Douglass. The challenge
here is first and foremost to carry through our research to completion,
and to take on the task of producing effective translations of
what others without Douglass' talents or opportunities left behind
to inform us about their lives.
Despite the work that remains to be done, there is no need
to sell our accomplishments short. What's emerged from the last
quarter century of archaeological research is a view of African-American
life under slavery and freedom which emphasizes active efforts
by these people to control their own lives rather than to be controlled.
This idea of action rather than passivity can be seen in every
category in the archaeological record, revealing subtle and direct
transformations of plantation housing, diet, and clothing. Dramatic discoveries
of traces of African spirituality from New York City to Annapolis to
Tennessee to the Gulf Coast of Texas all point to the ways that
African descendents, both enslaved and free, worked to maintain
and draw strength from their cultural traditions. These examples
from the material record are the solid remnants of what must have
been a constant set of defensive and offensive stances set against
the pressures on slaves to submit, conform, and accept their legal
status. This emphasis on African-American action rather than passivity
is of course the same message that has come out ofthe last several
decades of traditional historical scholarship on slavery and African-American
life. It is hard to sort out whether archaeologists would be coming
to these same conclusions without attention to and absorption of
the work of scholars working with non-archaeological sources.
I'm not sure this is even a question worth considering -- research
in one field won't get very far without constant interdisciplinary
communication. I do feel the archaeological record speaks loudly
about the struggles for freedom and autonomy in any and all forms
possible under the vicious constraints of slavery. I also think
our evidence provides ways to add nuances to the interpretation
of African-American resistance, for instance in considerations of
how artifacts produced by the dominate culture were appropriated
and given new meaning by people of African descent.
Archaeologists have come to accept "resistance" as
the key social mechanism through which African Americans in varied
oppressive situations achieved some level of autonomy and some
level of control over many of the details of their lives. The idea
of resistance, that individuals and groups in subordinate positions
were seldom if ever going to accept what was dished out to them
without struggle, is one of those deceptively simple ideas that gains
considerable explanatory power as one begins to explore its implications. The
"official" version of history and the continued rationale for
racist thought and policies is that Africans brought to the New
World were savage and childlike, incapable and unworthy of full
participation in of European civilization. This kind of justification,
of course, masks what was really going on in terms of the constant
struggle between groups contending for social power.
The concept of resistance covers a lot of territory, from outright
insurrection to everyday forms of petty rebellion, ranging from
direct insolence and sabotage; to "playing dumb" and
working at a slow pace; to maintaining traditions and a cultural
identity consciously distinct from that of those who surrounded
and sought to dominate the African-American population. Resistance offers
a solid and satisfying framework on which to build explanations
for archaeological evidence in such basic categories as food, architecture
and clothing. This framework is usually very visible with in the
stories archaeologists build in studying the African-American
past -- that slaves found ways to circumvent the agendas of their
owners, that much energy was directed to putting something over,
in big and small ways, on those supposedly in control, and that
this effort served to subvert and bring about changes in the strategies and
"management programs" of those supposedly with all the
power and might to direct the lives of those at the low end of
the social spectrum. Seeing African Americans in the past not as
passive victims, but as clever adversaries always ready to explore
new means to undermine their captor's plans also provides a somewhat
heroic subtext to the situation. For a lot of us, this not only
serves as an important interpretive stance, it also serves as a
buffer easing some of the appalling emotions we encounter in studying
the generations of misery associated with the African diaspora. It
is a story of evil and degradation as well as perseverance, redemption, and
hard-fought success, and the idea of resistance links all of the
segments of the story together.
What are we going to do with what we have found and found out?
Archaeology's contributions to the new evidence and new interpretations
of slave life will mean little if it is not put into play within
the world at large. The emerging archaeological goal of public
engagement offers the best way to spread the news, and to accomplish
the goal of getting the information into the hands of those who
can use it in the present. The push toward public engagement is
in synch with the high level of broad public interest in African-American history,
an interest made manifest as well as encouraged by such popular cultural
phenomena as Alex Haley's Roots, Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize,
Steven Speilberg's latest blockbuster, and even Addy, the African-American
entry in the phenomenally popular American Girl Dolls line of products.
Addy is presented in her accompanying story books as a member of
a family that escaped together from slavery to the North. Her basic
accessory kit includes a cowrie shell necklace, a silver dime (not
pierced) tied up in her kerchief, a small gourd water bottle, and
a banded yellowware bowl.
Why is this interest in the African-American history and culture
so evident, and why does it seem to be growing stronger? From a
broad point of view, it can be linked to a widespread acceptance
over the last three decades of a thoroughly transformed orientation
and understanding of what went on in the American past. The metaphor
of the nation as a melting pot, grounded in smooth cultural assimilation,
has been rejected. Only over the last generation has there been
reluctant acknowledgement of the key role of social tension and
conflict in our history, as opposed to the false notion of unified
consensus. With this comes an equally reluctant acceptance that
America will always be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society.
To move from the sociological to the more humanistic, I also
see the interest in the African-American past as linked to a growing
embracing of the African diaspora as one of the Great Stories of
the American nation, ranking with the Westward Expansion and Migration,
for example. It is an undeniably epic story, driven by elements
of human evil, racism, frailty, and all our triumphant qualities
as well. What also compels us to focus on this story is that it
is not at its end; we are still all immersed in it; and its conclusion,
tragic or uplifting, has yet to be written.
Archaeology's role in reconstructing the story of the African
diaspora is in keeping with the discipline of archaeology's well
established place in the minds of the public. Our audience sees
the function of archaeology to be the recovery of lost and hidden
evidence about the human past, the rescue of cultural treasures,
and answering, or at least attempting to answer, nagging questions
about what really went on in the past. The process here is simple:
the people we are interested in left behind things that we can dig
up and use in talking about and writing about their lives. Each
step in this process is of course incredibly complex, but it is
probably the last step, a usually unstated one, that should concern
us most in considering new directions in studying the African-American
diaspora. Who is it that we are talking to and writing for? Who
is our audience? What is the best way to conduct our exchanges
with the public? How much should we follow their lead in what we
research and present, how much should we seek to direct public
interest along new paths, and how can we effectively navigate
the middle ground between these two different approaches?
Considering these questions about how best to conduct public
engagement inevitably leads to a discussion of politics. All who
are involved in research on African American topics without fail
become embroiled in these discussions at one level or another.
There is tension and even on occasion harsh feelings in this discussion,
but I have come to realize that this edginess can be a good and
useful thing to the research as a whole. It makes one consider the
import of every word used, and the implications of every avenue
of interpretation that one chooses to explore. We do have to resist
the urge to make the arguments over politics and scholarly authority
the main thing, the primary reason for doing the research. The
recent issue of Historical Archaeology, edited by Carol McDavid
and David Babson, provides some admirable extended discussions of
how to avoid this trap, and how best to balance the present with
the past. The volume's contributors all demonstrate the belief
that the research has direct applications to the present, and all
share a commitment to direct engagement with the general public.
This recognition and active promotion of the obvious strong links
between past and present is certainly one ofthe hallmarks of archaeological
research on African-American life, and one of the reasons that
so many of us have been drawn to the topic.
Among archaeologists dedicated to the study of the African-American
past there remains some strong debate about where data collection
and analysis ends and where public engagement begins. Research
strategies, methodology, interpretations, and presentation are
all ultimately of one piece. The questions we ask are defined,
directly and indirectly, by the world at large, and the world at
large is informed and gets its understanding of the past from researchers
looking to answer these questions. The more open and circulating this
process is, the better it works. Within the archaeological study
ofthe African-American past, the process continues to evolve,
with some obvious points of contention about scholarly autonomy,
who has the right to control the research, and whose ethnocentric
biases are the most damaging to the research's end product.
There is some obvious and heavy irony in arguing about whose
voice -- the descendent community's, or the researchers -- should
predominate in decisions about what to study and what to say about
project results. After all, for years one of the prime allegories
used in promoting and justifying archaeological work on African-American
sites is that it gives voice to a people in the past who were always
denied a chance to say much for themselves. There have been some
notably successful projects based on intensive and ongoing community involvement
from start to finish. Certainly the New York African Burial Ground,
one of the most important excavations ever undertaken by historical archaeologists,
would have probably gone all but unnoticed, one more thick report
gathering dust on the shelf, if the local African-American community had
not stepped-up and assumed a commanding role in the conduct of
the project. There are other projects, also effective and successful,
in which archaeologists have taken a more distanced stance in regard
to community engagement. I would certainly include my own work
in this category.
Let me suggest a metaphor that might be useful in considering
these different styles of audience-researcher interaction -- the
process by which a standing tree becomes a fine piece of furniture.
Some extremely committed craftsmen do start at the very beginning,
selecting specific trees to use in their work, but most leave the
steps involved in harvesting, transporting, and milling raw wood
into useable lumber to others. Competency and even commitment to
excellence are necessary at every step of the way to achieve the
desired result: a high quality final product. I want to stress
that in my conception, the final product of archaeological research
is not a completed site report, or even a well-scripted public
slide show or museum display -- it is when the evidence and the
interpretations get into general circulation, and make some contribution
to the public's consciousness and wisdom about the past. In applying
this arboreal metaphor to archaeology, is the researcher just the
lumberjack, or does our job continue through the mill and perhaps
even to the craftsman's workbench? Different situations, different
institutions, and different personalities will define our duties,
and define how much overlap there is between one set of hands and
Like all metaphors, this trees-to-furniture scheme strips a
lot of complexity away. Hopefully it doesn't trivialize the links
between archaeologists and members of the public who are interested
in using the past in making sense of the present. There is no reason
to choose one single route, one and only one way for the various
kinds of archaeologists to connect with the various segments of
the general populace who are interested in our work. It is hard to
imagine an obviously significant and sensitive site like a cemetery
being excavated without guidance from the local descendent community
right from the start; it is also hard to imagine attracting similar
interest and support for the excavation of less spectacular sites
like black tenant farmers' homesteads. The latter case, if done
right, has the potential to produce results as significant and
intriguing as the study of a burial ground. Part of the job in
studying such a site should be to package these results in ways
that convey this significance to the general public.
One of the values of the distanced or "autonomous research" approach
is that it encourages connections with a variety of public groupings in
a variety of ways. There are lots of different segments of society
who have an interest, casual or fervently engaged, in the process
and results of archaeological research on sites associated with
African-American history. In their recent article on the New York
African Burial Ground, Cheryl LaRoche and Michael Blakey include
scholars, researchers, cultural resource managers, politicians,
religious leaders, community activists, and school children among
the players in that great drama.
On a more general level, those involved in the conversations
we seek to foster about African-American life would include the
institutions that employ us, which might be museums, colleges,
and government agencies, our archaeological colleagues; colleagues
in other disciplines; and finally the general public in all its
myriad groupings and subgroupings -- students at many different
levels, descendent groups, avocationalists, tourists who come across
excavations or museum exhibits in their travels, and casual readers
or viewers who come across a feature in a Sunday supplement or
a TV program while channel surfing. We need to cast the widest
net possible in responding to the many different publics interested
in our work, and we need to be ready to respond and encourage their
interest to the fullest extent possible. Some of those making use
of the products of our research are going to have a casual approach,
perhaps only desiring a little enlightenment about the past; for
others it will serve to define a vital part of their identity and
the way they understand their place in the world. We should feel
fulfilled in getting our work noticed and used at any level.
Continued and expanded public engagement is the one assured
element of the future of archaeological research on African-American
history. Much else about the course we will follow remains to be
determined. One thing we should be working on is to pull together
excavated evidence in comparative, integrated formats. Work throughout
the western hemisphere over the last quarter century has produced
massive artifact assemblages. Particularly spectacular finds are
reported, through journal and newsletter publication, through meetings
presentations, through the popular media, and even through word
of mouth. There have been a few intensive studies of ceramics
or faunal remains or reports on the biological evidence from skeletal
populations, but these have been too scarce. We need to put more
emphasis on bringing together research within specific site assemblages
and producing more inter-site work, comparing finds, investigating
overall similarities and distinctions, and even looking for, once
again, the patterns evident from one evidence base to the next.
It is exciting and significant to find cultural treasures -- beads,
pierced coins, quartz crystals, charms, and all the rest, but
we should be equally excited about putting these dazzlers into
the context of everyday life, and spreading the word about the
resulting broadened perspective on the lives of African Americans.
Working toward bringing together archaeological evidence within
integrative frameworks should also help to overcome what Theresa
Singleton and Mark Bograd have characterized as the "data
rich, theory poor" state of affairs in our research. We don't
need a new round of processualism, with searches for overarching
explanatory laws of behavior. What we do need from theorizing is
a redoubled effort at interpretations based on broad perspectives
and intersecting sources that bring order and make some sense out
of the evidence that we have accumulated.
I don't think we have accumulated all the evidence necessary
to answer the ever-widening set of questions we seek to answer.
One obvious need is to expand the types of sites being studied.
Imagine for a minute a coordinated international effort, not directed
by what a museum's mission statement or operating budget can support,
or what site a particular federally-funded project is going to
destroy. There are many times and places associated with the African-American
past which have not received much sustained archaeological attention
-- Central America during the Spanish Colonial period; sites occupied by
runaway or maroons on the North American continent; sites in the
western half of North America dating to after emancipation, sites
occupied by free blacks during the antebellum years, and northern
urban neighborhoods which developed during the rural to urban migrations
of the early twentieth century. Sites associated with plantation
slavery have always received a lot of attention, but there are
some critical gaps in the coverage of this category as well. The
Mississippi Delta region is practically unexplored territory,
despite its central place in the story of the plantation South
in the decades just preceding the Civil War. Smaller holdings,
in places like East Tennessee and the colonial Northeast, would
also be fertile ground for recovering perspectives on slavery away
from the social and economic influence of full-scale plantations.
Developing such a list of future excavation projects may not
be a practical, reality-based guide for what we should be pursuing,
but it does serve a couple of other purposes. It expands our view
on what we are really studying -- it is the total experience of
the forced African migration to the New World and the subsequent
centuries of social transformations, a process and set of events
best categorized by the term "African Diaspora." We will
all be better and more effective scholars if we occasionally look up
from our small excavation units and think about what we are doing
and discovering in light of the overall experience of African descendents
across the world and throughout the last five centuries. As Charles
Orser has suggested, we need to think globally, while digging locally.
Slavery is an important part of the story, but it was just one
step in the journey.
Beyond my musings about the globally-coordinated research effort,
I have no set plan to recommend. I don't trust such overarching
strategies, and I'm more at ease and trusting of the idea of the
"invisible hand" of scholarly progress, the serendipitous
result of a wide variety of individual researchers working on a
wide variety of individual projects.
We also have to trust the enormous potential of public engagement
and the public style of archaeological research. The popular interest
in archaeology is one real advantage we have over traditional history.
After all, few would go out of their way to peer over the shoulder
of someone sitting at a microfilm reader. Archaeologists need to
seize the opportunity offered by the twin public interests in archaeology
and in the African-American past, and make the best use of these
entry points to get out the word on what we can contribute in telling
We need to stay grounded, literally, and focused on the evidence.
The work is the thing -- digging has a kind of magic to it, and
this is what keeps us all coming back for more. This magic is of
course related to the most basic goal of archaeology -- finding
neat things. There is no need to downplay this core, defining characteristic
of our work. Of course wecan't rely on just the spectacular finds,
since true success depends on sustained effort. Fulfillment of
our own goals, and fulfillment of the public's expectations of
our work will come from building up the evidence, and coming up
with not just interesting things, but interesting things to say
about what we dig up.
Cobern Street: Excavations at an Unmarked
Burial Ground in Cape Town, South Africa
Heather Apollonio, Department of Archaeology, University
of Cape Town
Editor's Note: While A-A A is dedicated to African-American
archaeology, material related to broader comparative and interpretive
contexts will also appear on a regular basis.
In recent years, urban expansion and development in the Cape
Town area has led to the rediscovery of a considerable number of
historic burial grounds (c.f. Cox and Sealy 1997; Hart and Halkett
1996; and Sealy et al 1993). Perhaps the most significant discovery
was of a relatively intact burial ground at Cobern Street, Cape
Town, dating to the mid-18th century.
In 1994, construction work on the margins of the Cape Town
City Bowl began to reveal human skeletal material. A rescue operation
was initiated by the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at
the University of Cape Town (UCT), under the direction of Alan
Morris. Nine graves were exhumed from the exposed foundation trench,
two of which were no more than isolated and disarticulated bones.
Consequently, it was decided that systematic excavation was necessary
in the portion of the site to be disturbed during construction. Alan
Morris, with Dave Halkett and Tim Hart of the Archaeology Contracts Office
at UCT and a group of volunteers, undertook the exhumations during December
1994 and January 1995.
Excavations revealed an additional 56 intact graves, along
with additional disarticulated skeletal material. In all, the remains
of approximately 121 individuals were recovered (Constant and Louw
1997). Undoubtedly, more burials remain undisturbed beneath nearby
standing structures at the site.
There were three styles of interment associated with the Cobern
Street burials. The earliest graves were two Later Stone Age (LSA)
cairn burials, each containing two individuals. The bodies were
interred in a confined shaft, one above the other in a vertical
flexed position. Within the cairns, flaked stones, grindstones,
shells, ochre, pottery, faunal remains, fragments of a tortoise
carapace bowl, and a cache of shells were recovered. These burials
dated to approximately 1000 BP, and are unrelated to the later
historic period burials at the site.
The predominant burial pattern for colonial period remains
appears to represent traditionally Euro-Christian burial practices
in which the graves were oriented on an East to West orientation.
At Cobern Street, these were frequently, but not always, coffin
burials in which the body has been interred in a supine position
with the arms folded over the pelvis or lying at the sides of the
body. Many included shroud pins, and a few of the burials were rich
in grave goods.
The third style of interment was "deep lying side burials." Five
burials fit into this category, two of which were niche burials.
The bodies were interred lying on their right sides with no coffin
or other burial items, and were oriented perpendicular to the majority
of the coffin burials. The niche burials had small alcoves cut
into the side of the grave shaft for the head and the feet. These
burials are among the deepest at the site, and some are overlain
by coffin burials.
Finally, there were a number of highly disturbed burials consisting
mostly of semi-articulated or disarticulated skeletal material.
These bone deposits had little or no contextual material and often
appeared to be the result of older burials being disturbed to make
room for more recent interments. It is possible that this phenomenon
may be partially attributed to hasty and frequent interments during
the smallpox epidemics dating to 1755 and/or 1812-13 (Davids 1984).
Alternatively, they may represent disturbance of graves resulting
from mid-19th century construction.
Artifacts recovered at Cobern Street have been grouped into
five categories: coffin hardware; clothing items; burial items
such as shroud pins and fabric associated with the interment process;
personal items such as beads, pipes, knives, a needle case, and
a snuff box, all apparently added to accompany the deceased; and
items associated with the LSA cairns.
Several of the graves were unusual, and are worthy of a more
detailed description. One grave (Burial 3) contained a young man
of about 20 years of age, who had been interred with an iron shackle
around his left leg. Another grave (Burial 20) contained three
individuals, a man, woman and a child. Both adults had filed teeth.
A 40 year old man (Burial 49), with sharpened incisors, was interred
in a coffin with assorted grave goods (pins, tinderbox, striker,
flint, and a clay pipe).
Interpretation of the burial patterns and grave goods is currently
underway (Apollonio in prep.) and promises to shed new light on
groups poorly represented in the archaeological record of Cape
Town. The site appears to contain the remains of individuals who
were denied access to the official church burial ground of the
period. Slaves, free blacks, convicts, soldiers and sailors, may
all have found what turned out to be a temporary resting place
at Cobern Street. If this proves to be the case, we will have an
opportunity to begin to understand people traditionally overlooked
in the history of colonial Cape Town.
I would like to thank Alan Morris for allowing me access to
the Cobern Street material, and to both Alan and Martin Hall for
their guidance and supervision of this project. Dave Halkett and
Tim Hart of the Archaeology Contracts Office at the UCT excavated
the Cobern Street site, and Antonia Malan of the Historical Archaeology
Research Group at UCT began the archive search and artifact analysis.
The support and input of all mentioned, and many others at UCT
has been invaluable. Many thanks to all.
in prep. Identifying the Dead: Eighteenth Century Mortuary
Practices at Cobern Street Cape Town. Masters Thesis, Department
of Archaeology, University of Cape Town.
Constant, D. A., and G. J. Louw
1997 Age and Sex Distributions for the Cobern Street Collection. Paper
delivered at the 27th Annual Congress of the Anatomical Society
of Southern Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.
Cox, G., and J. Sealy
1997 Investigating Identity and Life Histories: Isotopic Analysis
and Historical Documentation of Slave Skeletons Found on the Cape
Town Foreshore, South Africa. International Journal of Historical
1984 The Revolt of the Malays: A Study of the Reactions of
the Cape Muslims to the Smallpox Epidemics of Nineteenth Century
Cape Town, in Studies in the History of Cape Town, Centre
of African Studies, UCT.
Hart, T., and D. Halkett,
1996 Archaeological Investigation of Two Cemeteries, Groot
Constantia Estate, Constantia. Report prepared for Trevor Thorold
(Architects) and Groot Constantia. Archaeology Contracts Office,
University of Cape Town.
Sealy, J., A. Morris, R. Armstrong, A. Markell, and C. Schrire
1993 Historic Skeleton from the Slave Lodge at Vergelegen,
Historical Archaeology in the Western Cape: South African Archaeological
Society Goodwin Series Vol. 7, edited by Martin Hall and Ann
Plates in Graves: An Africanism?
John P. McCarthy Greenhorne & O'Mara, Inc., Greenbelt,
Comments prepared for the panel discussion: Lessons from
Historic Period Cemeteries, 1998 Meeting of the Society for Historical
It almost goes without saying that laying the dead to rest
is an important life-course event and rite of passage. The archaeological
investigation of cemetery sites presents special opportunities
to examine sociocultural aspects of death and associated ritual
complexes. The broad issue with which I am concerned in today's
brief presentation is the "reading"of sociocultural
identities from grave data. My specific point of reference will
be the practice of placing a plate in the coffin with the deceased prior
to burial. Does this practice represent an Africanism? That is,
is this practice a cultural "carry-over" from Africa?
Is it part of a Creole Slave culture formed from European and Native
American sources as well as African influences? And further, can
such a practice be used to infer aspects of a deceased's sociocultural
I am going to briefly define what I mean by sociocultural identity,
and I will then outline what I know about plates in graves. Finally,
I will discuss the implications of these data for archaeological
Without taking up a lot of time for this aspect of my discussion,
sociocultural identity consists of those shared aspects of group
identity which are both consciously and unconsciously constructed
and performed in the course of everyday life. The material effects
of class, ethnicity, and religious affiliation have been among
the aspects of identity that historical archaeologists have considered.
Some of these identities, following Barth, must be recognized not
only by the individuals who comprise the group, but also by individuals external
to the group. Various learned values, practices, and signs an symbols,
transmitted from generation to generation, constitute the substance of
these identities. Accordingly, these identities are both social
and cultural in nature. We should note that while race too is a
socially constructed category, it differs from ethnicity and other
identities in that it is based upon inherited physical characteristics
rather than on learned cultural substance.
Plate in the Grave
I first became interested in the problem of plates in graves
following the recovery of broken, but otherwise complete, plates
from two individual graves at the 8th Street First African Baptist
Church cemetery in Philadelphia, excavated under Mike Parrington's
direction in 1984-85. I began to consider this phenomenon and its
sociocultural connections more seriously when no plates were recovered
during my own excavation of the earlier 10th Street First African
Baptist Church cemetery in 1990. The 8th Street cemetery had been
in use from 1823 until the early 1840s, while the 10th Street
cemetery was used from 1810 until 1822.
I want to make clear that what I am talking about is the inclusion
of ceramics in the actual grave. This should not be confused with
the practice of decorating the surface of graves with ceramics,
glassware, cooking pots, or shiny objects, a practice that has
been well documented in parts of the south and in the Kongo region
A ceramic plate had been placed on the stomach of the deceased
inside the coffin in each of these two burials at the 8th Street
cemetery: the first was of blue edge-decorated pearlware and the
second was of hand-painted Chinese porcelain. The Old World and
Native American archaeological literatures are replete with examples
of the inclusion of ceramic vessels and other"grave goods"
in burials, apparently for use by the deceased in the afterlife
or as a form of social display of wealth and/or power. African ethnographic
literature also makes some reference to grave offerings, including ceramics.
However, reports of ceramics from historic period burials in the New
World are far less common.
To my knowledge there are only a few published and grey literature
reports of such occurrences. Saucers have been recovered from four
post-bellem African-American graves in the southern United States
(Cabak and Wilson 1998). A white salt-glazed stoneware saucer and
a feather-edged creamware plate were reported recovered from two
separate eighteenth-century English graves in Jamaica (Fremmer 1973).
A shallow redware bowl was found in the grave of an enslaved African at
the Newton Cemetery in Barbados (Handler and Lange 1973:137),
and more recently, an ironstone plate was recovered from the grave
of a poorly preserved female of indeterminate race at the Quaker
Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.
The purpose and meaning of these objects is somewhat ambiguous.
Femmer (1973), and others, has reported that plates of salt were
traditionally used in parts of Ireland and England to control odor
and/or bloating of the deceased. When discussing this issue a number
of years ago with Mike Parrington, he told me the following story,
which he claimed to be an old traditional joke from rural Britain:
A farm laborer was applying for a job at the manor house. The farm
manager says, "So you say you've been working at the farm
just down the road for nearly the last month. Why did you leave
that job?" The hand replies, "Well, the first week I was
there the old cow died, and that wasn't bad eating. Then the second week,
the old pig died, and that wasn't bad eating either. The third
week, the old horse died, and that wasn't such good eating. So
after that, when I saw the master taking a plate of salt up to
his old, sick mother's room, I knew it was time to leave."
Based on what he was able to learn about this practice, Ray
Fremmer (1973), who reported the Jamaican examples, concluded that
the inclusion of ceramic vessels in the Jamaican graves might have
been due to oversight rather than the result of an intentional
act. But he also noted that in isolated parts of Jamaica it was
traditional to place a dish containing a mixture of coffee and
salt on the stomach of the deceased throughout the wake and burial. The
widespread African practice of pouring of "libations"
for the ancestors, while not generally involving a vessel, is another
death-related practice that may have resulted in the accidental
inclusion of a ceramic vessel in the grave.
It is also possible that these plates were deliberately placed
in the graves for use in the afterlife, or the burial of the plate
last used by the deceased may also have been meant to prevent the
deceased spirit from harming the living. In parts of the South
and Africa it was believed that the "energy" or "essence"
of the dead was embodied in objects last used by the deceased.
Further, if the plates had been deliberately broken before being
buried, that would lend support to the notion that their placement
in the grave was to "ground" the energy of the deceased.
Is a plate in a grave an Africanism? Maybe, or maybe not. It
is probably more accurate to consider this practice part of the
creole complex of slave culture that arose in the New World from
a wide variety of sources. We have few known examples of this practice
in the record, and all are from African-American burials or other
slave culture contexts. If placing plates in graves was truly a
widespread traditional English practice, we should have at least some
evidence of its occurrence outside the context of slave culture.
Is this practice indicative of African influences or an explicitly
African-American identity? Probably, but not necessarily exclusively
so. Clearly, the extent to which practices such as the burial of
a plate in a grave can be used to infer sociocultural identity
must be tied to the extent to which the practice is exclusively
associated with a particular sociocultural group in specific temporal
and geographic contexts. Base on what we know at this point, such
can not be said to be the case with respect to plates in graves. As
with the interpretation of most archaeological phenomena, we need
much more comparative data before a definitive finding will be
possible -- so be sure to let me know if you ever find a plate
in a grave.
Cabak, Melanie, and Kristin Wilson
1998 Gender Differences among African-American Interments
in the American South. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting
of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Atlanta, GA.
1973 Dishes in Colonial Graves: Evidence from Jamaica. Historical Archaeology
Handler, Jerome S., and Frederick W. Lange
1978 Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and
Historical Investigation. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Publications of Interest
Journal of Intercultural Studies is an international journal
addressing inter- and multi-cultural issues published twice a year
by Carfax Publishing Company, P. O. Box 25, Abington, Oxfordshire,
OX14 3UE, UK. Vol. 18, No.1 (April 1997) included an essay by
Gill Bottomley, "Identification: ethnicity, gender, and culture."
Multicultural Review is published quarterly by Greenwood Publishing
Group, Westport, CT. It addresses ethnic, racial, and religious
diversity, particularly in the classroom context.
Social Identities is a journal for the study of race, nation,
and culture published three times a year by Carfax Publishing Company,
P. O. Box 25,Abington, Oxfordshire, OX14 3UE, UK. Social Identities
is an interdisciplinary and international focal point for theorizing
issues at the interface of social identities. Issues of particular
concern include the transformation of economies and cultures of
postmodern and post colonial contexts.
CRM: Cultural Resources Management, Volume 21, No. 4, was a
special issueon Slavery and Resistance, edited by Frank Faragasso
and Doug Stover. Published by the National Park Service and distributed
free of charge, this was the third annual thematic issue devoted
to African-American history. The focus of this issue is slavery
and the underground railroad, topics that are currently receiving
a lot of attention in the Park Service. While only one of the articles
is concerned with an archaeological property, the townsite of
Quindaro in Kansas, there is much of interest here, particularly
concerning the public interpretation of the African-American past.
CRM is available by writing to the NPS' cultural Resources office,
1849 C Street, NW, Suite 350NC, Washington, DC 20240.
Books, Featured at the 91st Annual Meeting of the Organization
of American Historians:
Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, edited by Randall M. Miller
and John David Smith, 1997 pb 2nd ed (1988 1st hc ed), Praeger,
Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport.
African-American Midwifery in the South: Dialogues of Birth,
Race, and Memory, Gertrude Jacinta Fraser, 1998, hc, Harvard University
Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877, John David Smith,
1997 pb, 1996 hc, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude, 1783-1933, Howard Johnson,
1997 hc, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
A Historical Guide to World Slavery, edited by Semour Drescher
and Stanley Engerman, 1998 hc, Oxford University Press, New York.
The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, 2 Volumes, edited
by Junius P. Rodriguez, 1997 hc, ABC-CLIO.
African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives, edited
by Joe W. Trotter, Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, 1997 hc & pb,
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, and
Penn State Press, University Park.
The History of the African-American People: The History, Traditions, and
Culture of African Americans, edited by James Oliver Horton and
Lois E. Horton, 1997, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.
Exchanging Our County Marks: The Transformation of African
Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, Michael A. Gomez,
1998 hc & pb, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American
South, Mark M. Smith, 1997 hc & pb, University of North Carolina
Press, Chapel Hill.
Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century
Chesapeake and Lowcounty, Philip D. Morgan, 1998 hc & pb, University
of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
The Worldbook African-American Journey: presents a well-produced
overview history of Africans in America at: www.worldbook.com/features/blackhistory/index.
The National Park Service's quarterly journal, CRM: Cultural
Resources Management, is available in an electronic version at
SiteScene is a biweekly review of new websites and other electronic
resources in American Studies. Reviews will be posted every two
weeks to the main page of the Crossroads American Studies Web at:
Ontario Black History Exhibit on the Web: Visit the McCurdy
collection -- a virtual exhibit of photographs and text that gives
an insight to thelives of some of Ontario's early black settlers.
Presented by the Archives of Ontario, in co-operation with the
Ontario Black History Society. You can find this exhibit on the
Archives of Ontario's website at: www.gov.on.ca/mczcr/archives/mccurdy/mccurdy1.
An Anthology of WPA Slave Narratives and other research resources
are available at the University of Virginia's site: xroads.virgnia.edu/~HYPER/hypertex.
American Quarterly: the index for this journal from 1975-95
and full text of more recent issues is available at: jhupress.jhu.edu/journals/aq.
Seneca Village: The New York Historical Society tells the history
ofthis African-American village in what is now New York's Central
Park at: projects.ilt.columbia. edu/seneca/start.
Book Reviews and Notes
Michael A. Morrison, 1997. Slavery and the American West:
The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. xii + 396 pp.
Notes, bibliography, index. $49.95(cloth).
In the author's words, this book "examines the relationship
between the territorial issue and the origins of the American Civil
War." Combining "political, diplomatic, and intellectual
history, it explores the origin, force, and effect of expansion
and western settlement on national politics in the 1840s and 1850s"
(p. 4). Morrison argues that this period should be viewed in its
own terms rather than simply as part of an inevitable progression toward
Morrison tries to present both public and private discourses
of antebellum Americans as they evaluated slavery, popular sovereignty,
the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the constituent elements of republicanism.
In each chapter Morrison briefly sketches a major aspect of western
expansion during the antebellum years and provides the justifications
offered by policy advocates and the counter arguments of opponents.
Throughout, individuals, rather than faceless ideologies, are placed
in the foreground of the narrative.
The volume offers a sophisticated analysis of the process by
which Americans transformed the ideology of republicanism from
one that accommodated the needs of two national political parties
in the Jackson years to regionally divergent understandings of
the place and justification of slavery. In time, these divisions
were carried to the point of war, with each region convinced that
the other was infringing the principles of liberty and equality
proclaimed at the beginning of the republic.
Frederick M. Binder and David M. Reimers, 1995. All the
Nations under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York
City. New York: Columbia University Press. xii + 353 pp. Notes,
selected bibliography, index. $29.50(cloth), $16.50 (paper).
Binder and Reimers present a narrative and analytical history
of ethnic and racial relations in New York from its Dutch colonial
founding in 1624 through the present. The focus is on how immigrant
newcomers to the city adjusted and accommodated to the city's ever-changing
The authors find the great immigrations of the 19th century
the most significant. Massive Irish, German, Italian, and East
European immigration resulted in distinct neighborhoods in Manhattan,
such as the Irish Sixth Ward. Concentration of numbers brought
political, economic, and social opportunities.
After W.W. II, Puerto Ricans, European refugees, and African-Americans found
generally favorable economic circumstances. However, more recently, the
newest immigrants from the third world have encountered economic
crises and racial and ethnic conflict.
While the social, political, and economic aspects of New York's
ethnic groups are clearly presented, the treatment of the cultural
experiences and contributions of these groups is much weaker. For
readers of A-A A the volume's comprehensive survey of previous
scholarship on ethnic groups in New York will be particularly useful.
Patience Essah, 1996. A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation
in Delaware, 1638-1865. Charlottesville and London: University
Press of Virginia. xi + 217 pp. Tables, notes, index. $29.50 (cloth).
Delaware, being a small state, has often been overlooked by
researchers dealing with broad national trends and processes. Until
recently, this has been the case with respect to the history of
slavery and emancipation aswell. Essah's volume corrects this,
providing a thorough analysis of thepatterns of bondage, freedom,
agriculture, religion, and politics that comprised race relations
in the state for more than 200 years.
Delaware was an oddity in a number of ways. It did not join
the wave of legislative emancipation that swept through the states
to its north inthe late 18th century. There were also never enough
slaves in the state to have possibly ended the institution violently,
nor enough slaveholders to warrant Delaware joining the Confederacy.
However, many of the elements present in other slave states, from
Enlightenment ideology to Draconian slave codes, co-existed in
Delaware, thus resulting in a case study in political interest
and economic necessity.
Racial demographics and their effects on policy are presented
in detail. Gradual emancipation is presented as a means by which
slaveholders were able to eliminate excess bonded labor, while
at the same time they made use of indentured ("half-free")
The free Black community, that came to outnumber those enslaved,
receives considerable attention. Abolitionism is also considered,
as are African-American attempts to build institutions separate
from white control.
Overall, this is a valuable work on a slave society experiencing
economic and social change. Delaware, as a border state, presents
a microcosm of the processes present in adjoining states, both
north and south.
William McKee Evans, 1995. Ballots and Fence Rails: Reconstructionon
the Lower Cape Fear. Foreword by Charles Joyner. Athens and
London: University of Georgia Press. xx + 314 pp. Illustrations,
maps, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 (paper).
This reprint makes Evans' classic local history of Reconstruction
in North Carolina, first published in 1965, available to a new
generation of researchers and reminds us of the issues revisionist
scholars faced in the 1960s. The new edition includes a brief Foreword
by Charles Joyner who reflects on the changes in historical scholarship
which have generally came to pass over the past few decades. Joyner
also notes the importance of Evans having examined wide-ranging
issues through the study of a "small place."
Evans illuminates the historiographic context of his study
in his final chapter. He challenges many of the then prevailing
notions about Reconstruction, such as it was marked by "Negro
domination" and Northern "carpetbaggers" consistently
brought malicious misgovernment to the region. He does not,however,
argue that Reconstruction was without its problems. It left in place
a political system that placed steadfast limitations on the possibilities for
change. The persistence of "serious cultural and economic
inequalities" and the lack of a "politically reliable
mechanism of force," in particular, sustained the return of
reactionary regimes in the region (pp. 257-58).
While certain aspects of Evan's use of language and racial
attitudes have not bore the test of time well, his detailed knowledge
of this particular place's history, and his lively narrative reflecting
the complexity of human nature and 19th-century race relations
make this study a classic.
Joe William Trotter, Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, Editors, 1997.
African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives.
University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press and the
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. xv + 519 pp. Illustrations,
maps, notes, index. $45.00(cloth), $19.95 (paper).
This anthology volume brings together an outstanding collection
of research papers that together present a detailed picture of
the African-American experience in the commonwealth from the 17th
century founding of Pennsylvania through the postindustrial
era of the late 20th century. While the scholarly community has
had access to these materials in the journals and specialized monographs
in which most originally appeared, their assembly here is not only
constitutes a convenience for researchers, but also presents these essays
in a form accessible to an educated general audience that includes community
leaders and policy makers.
The volume opens with an introductory review of the historical
literature on African Americans in Pennsylvania by the senior editor.
This is a comprehensive assessment of the major themes that historians
have addressed, not just an overview of the papers presented in
this volume, and accordingly it is a valuable resource in itself.
The 19 other contributions are divided into four sections:
The Commercial Economy (1684-1840), The Industrializing Era (1840-1870),
The Industrial Era (1870-1945), and The Transformation of the Black
Community (1945-1985). Part 1 documents the transformation of enslaved
Africans into free African Americans. Part 2 considers the impacts
of early industrialization, urbanization and emancipation. Part
3 examines de facto segregation, immigration, the Depression and
the World Wars to emphasize new forms of race relations. Finally,
Part 4 considers the effects of the civil rights movement, deindustrialization, and
the spread of urban poverty. Overall, the essays address the interplay of
race, class, and gender issues, predominately in the major metropolitan centers
of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
News and Announcements
"Bloomsbury and Mitsawoket: Rediscovering an Indian Past",; was
presented at the Cheswold Fire House, Cheswold, Delaware, Saturday, May
9, 1998. This was a public report of research sponsored by the
Delaware Department of Transportation, presented by Heite Consulting
of Camden, Delaware. Exhibits included artifacts from the site,
maps, diagrams, and charts.
Researching Slavery and Heritage in the Sea Islands: May 20-28,
Charleston, South Carolina. This workshop, organized by the Sea
Islands Institute, is for advanced graduate students, independent
scholars, and college teachers interested in researching African-American
heritage. Emphasis is on critical analysis as well as exploring
opportunities for project collaboration. Attendees should expect
to participate in all workshop activities. The workshop cost of
$375 includes materials, site visits, seminars, welcome and departure receptions.
Applications are due April 20. For further information, contact Dr.
Clive Muir, at (803)536-1997 or email@example.com.
Editor/Publisher: John P. McCarthy, Greenhorne &
O'Mara, Inc.,9001 Edmonston Road, Greenbelt, MD 20770 (301)-220-1876
Northeast: James Garmon, Public Archaeology Laboratory,
Inc., 210 Lonsdale Avenue, Pawtucket, RI 02860 (401)-728-8780
Mid-Atlantic: Barbara Heath, The Corporation for Jefferson's
Popular Forest, P. O. Box 419, Forest, VA 24551
Southeast: Joe W. Joseph, New South Associates, Inc.
4889 Lewis Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30083 (770)-498-4155
Caribbean: Paul Farnsworth, Dept. of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana
State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Midwest: Matthew Emerson, Anthropology Department, Southern
Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL 62026 (618)-692-5689
Mid-South/So. Plains: Leslie "Skip" Stewart-Abernathy, Arkansas
Archaeological Survey, P. O. Box 8706 AKU, Russellville, AK 72801(501)-968-0381
West: Laurie Wilkie, Anthropology Department, University
of California, Berkeley, CA 94720
Electronic version compiled by Thomas
R. Wheaton, New South Associates, Inc.
©2005 African Diaspora Archaeology Network
Please send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated: April 16, 2005