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African-American Archaeology

Newsletter of the African-American Archaeology Network

Number 13, Spring 1995

Thomas R. Wheaton, Editor

The Medical College of Georgia Project

Submitted by Robert L. Blakely, Georgia State University

In 1989, Robert Blakely (Georgia State University) and Chad Braley (Southeastern Archaeological Services) directed salvage archaeology in the earthen floor of the basement of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) in Augusta, Georgia. The team recovered human bones representing hundreds of cadaver parts -- arms, legs, torsos, skulls. Many of the bones show signs of postmortem dissection and amputation. Others had been autopsied, and a few had specimen numbers written on them with India ink. The remains include African Americans and Euro-Americans, both sexes, and all ages from fetus to the elderly. Also recovered were hundreds of artifacts, including scalpels, syringes, thermometers, microscope slides, coins, clothing, coffin lining, nonhuman animal bones, and medicine bottles. Some bottles contain residue of their original contents; one holds liquid preserving human organ tissue.

Because dissection was illegal in Georgia until 1887, the procurement of cadavers had to be carried out surreptitiously. Grave robbers, or "resurrectionmen" as there sometimes known, were employed by the college to rob corpses from their graves in nearby cemeteries. Bodies also were provided by local hospitals. Much of the dissected material was discarded in the basement of the college building.

With funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Georgia State University, Blakely and his students are conducting studies to learn (1) the preferences of anatomy professors in the procurement of cadavers, (2) the social attitudes and medical knowledge of the college physicians, and (3) other activities carried out at the college in the 1800s.

Throughout the project, we have attempted to minimize researcher biasin three ways: (1) by drawing upon evidence from a wide array of sources, including forensic anthropology, archaeology, experimental anatomy, history and ethnography; (2) by involving both African-American and Euro-American scholars in all levels and components of the research; and (3) by engaging residents of Augusta in the processes of discovery and interpretation.

A comparison of demographic data from the skeletal remains with census figures from nineteenth-century Augusta showed that MCG's professors preferred as cadavers African Americans over Euro-Americans, males over females, andadults over children. Given the prevailing social attitudes and economicrealities of the day, these findings are not unexpected. Today, with legal dissection and body donor programs, the preponderance of cadavers are Euro-American.

By replicating nineteenth century dissection techniques on modern cadavers, the investigators found that dissection in the last century was more comprehensivethan it is today. This change largely reflects two factors: (1) the specialized course work and medical practices of today leave far less time for training in gross anatomy than in the past; (2) much of anatomical dissection inthe nineteenth century entailed practice amputations, a treatment that was quick, if not always efficacious.

The analysis of artifacts revealed that the MCG building was more than a teaching facility during the last century. Bottles containing medicinals such as cod liver oil indicate that there was a dispensary on the premisesfor administering to patients. Cod liver oil used be a common treatment for "consumption" (tuberculosis).

To its credit, the Medical College of Georgia has not tried to keep alid on a potentially embarrassing and painful aspect of its past. The bones eventually will be returned to Augusta for reinterment, and the artifacts will form part of a museum exhibit to chronicle the history of MCG, nineteenth-century medical practices, and the decedents who unknowingly gave themselves to science -- not once, but twice.

The Burrell Pharmacy, A Turn-of-the-Century Black-Owned Drugstore

Submitted by Michael F. Barber and Michael B. Barber Preservation Technologies, Inc.

The Burrell Pharmacy Site represents a window on the day to day activities and lifestyle of the black community in Roanoke at the turn of the century. The excavations sampled a city block of the historic Gainsboro Community on which the Davis Hotel was situated. A number of businesses shared the building throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including groceries, restaurants, and the Burrell Pharmacy. The cultural remains consisted of the pharmacy foundations and a sample of an extensive trash midden deposit. Over 27,000 artifacts were recovered with a large number relating to the drugstore era. The material culture was investigated with an eye toward community, regional, and national implications. Social and economic patterns were discovered in the personal items and the commercial products available to the Gainsboro community.

The midden deposit reflects the isolation and cohesion of the black community during this period in many ways. This is seen in the personal and domestic items recovered. Personal items were relatively low in number, and limited to small, relatively inconsequential items such as marbles, and a porcelain doll. Although the generally low income of the black population during this period provides some cause for this, personal items may be limited by other factors as well. Items of personal adornment may have been inappropriate for public display due to social pressures. Whites may have deemed accessto certain wealth items as mirroring aspects of white culture which were inappropriate.

This is not to say that wealth items were not available. One example would be porcelain, a well made and relatively expensive ceramic type. The porcelain subassemblage recovered from the midden was comprised primarily of demitasse, cup and saucer fragments for use in the American "Tea ceremony." This would indicate a certain ability to demonstrate some indications of wealth within one's home which may be interpreted as inappropriate in a more public setting.

The exchange of products exhibits differential patterns at the pharmacy and neighborhood levels. Commercial goods such as medicines, ceramics, and perfumes were shipped from other states, while consumables such as sodaand beer were bottled and distributed locally. Dr. Burrell obtained medicines from the Northeast and Midwest. Some of the cures were mixed and formulated in the pharmacy, while others came prepackaged. A dual pattern becomes evident based on market size, product type, and investment in mechanization.

The excavations at the Dr. Isaac David Burrell Pharmacy site provided much information concerning the pharmacy, the Gainsboro neighborhood of which it was a part, social and ethnic patterns and processes, and local and national marketing patterns of the turn of the century South. The importance of individuals such as Dr. Burrell and communities such as the Gainsboro neighborhood in the history of the Roanoke Valley cannot be over emphasized.

African Americans Who Became African Canadians The Thornton and Lucie Blackburn House Site

Removed at author's request

Plantation Archaeology: Where Past and Present can Collide

Submitted by Laurie A. Wilkie, Institute of Archaeology, UCLA

December, and the Christmas lights are lit at Poplar Grove Plantation. Since 1990, a preservation group has outlined the remaining, dilapidated buildings of the plantation quarters with Christmas lights, producing anostalgic holiday display. Recently, school children from the area have added painted cut-out figures of African-American tenants involved in different plantation activities, such as slaughtering hogs, cutting sugar cane, tending to children, sitting on porches, cooking, etc. To the average visitor, the light display presents a cheery portrait of yesteryear gone by. So convincing is the display, that it is easy to ignore the broken down trucks and cars parked by the houses, the tattered clothes lines hanging in the backyards, and the scattered children's toys on the porches. If approached in the daylight, however, it is this present reality of Poplar Grove that must be seen.

The African-American families that now live on Poplar Grove are squatters, tied to the land not through legal holdings, but through years of association and occupation. They are the living legacy of the collapsing plantation system, and are increasingly trapped between the goals of developers, and, ironically, historical preservationists. Poplar Grove is a plantation indispute. The plantation lands were originally acquired in the 1820s, but the plantation operated most successfully as a sugar plantation from the 1880s through 1982. Quarter houses built as early as the 1870s still stand as part of one of the most intact plantation complexes from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

A non-profit organization has been attempting to purchase the site to create an interpretive center/museum complex. The owner of the land, a descendent of the planter family who ran Poplar Grove, does not want to sell the land despite the urgings of other family members, but rather, wants to raze most of the complex to build a warehouse facility. It is unclear how this dispute will play out. One aspect is clear, however, whether the buildings are razed or made into a museum complex, the lives of the current squatters, the living representatives of the Poplar Grove community, will be impacted.

As an archaeologist, it would be desirable to ensure that some sort of archaeological testing and excavation could take place at this valuable site before any demolition might occur. However, as an anthropologist, such research may serve to facilitate or quicken one conclusion or the other. The preservation group is dedicated to preserving a portion of the African-American historical experience through the buildings and plantation complex, but to do so may be at the expense of the living members of that community.

Given the nature of negotiations at this time between the preservation group and the landowner, it is possible, that if the preservation group successfully purchases the property, somehow the needs of the modern community at the plantation will be addressed and incorporated into the interpretive development as has been publicly stated. However, previous cases in Louisiana have had a very different outcome.

Poplar Grove is not the only plantation where preservation conflicts with the needs of contemporary communities. In 1992, another historical group based in Baton Rouge purchased four standing antebellum cabins from Riverlake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. The cabins were constructed circa 1845, making them rather rare. Three of the four cabins were in an advanced state of disrepair, but the fourth was still occupied. It was thehope of the preservation group to move the four cabins to Baton Rouge, to create 2 or three complete cabins from the four and lay them out in a row pattern behind another historic plantation house.

The intent was to create an interpretive exhibit focused on African-American plantation life, certainly a laudable goal. The land owner planned to plow the land where the houses stood to plant more sugar cane. Living in the fourth cabin was a seventy year old African-American squatter and his female companion. The two were evicted from the house during the Christmas of 1992.

Archaeologists from LSU were contacted by the architectural historian overseeing the house moving after it was suggested that archaeological testing of the site may be appropriate. Paul Farnsworth and myself, agreed to run volunteer excavations at the site as a salvage operation. We worked closely with the former tenant population, gathering oral histories and perspectives on plantation life. Having been brought into the project at a very latestage, we were very distressed to learn that the offer by the preservationists to purchase the buildings had led to the eviction of the elderly couple. We were able to build strong ties with the former community of the plantation despite this, but became very aware of the conflicting goals of the project.

There is an additional element of the Riverlake story which makes it more sardonic. Riverlake Plantation was the boyhood home of world-renowned African-American author, Ernest J. Gaines. Riverlake Plantation and its community was the inspiration for much of his literary work. In his novels, A Gathering of Old Men, and Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines discusses the plight of older African-Americans living as squatters on plantations where they once worked, dependent upon the whim of their former employerfor their homes. The connection between the cabins, the author, his writing and the plantation landscape would have made this a valuable site to preserve. Instead, the cabins have been removed from a significant historical context. In preserving only the architectural remains from the plantation, the remains of the community whose history is to be told through the interpretation of the houses, have been forced from their homes.

Conflicts between the interests of landowners, squatters and preservationists are likely to increase in frequency as interest in interpreting the African-American past for the public grows. The issue is not new however. The state of Louisiana, in 1947, purchased Oakley Plantation and began to develop the land as a State Commemorative Area, which it still is. In 1949, Sam Scott, who hadlived on the plantation for thirty years, and two other elderly tenants, were evicted from their homes, which were located within the new state park. From 1991-1992 I conducted excavations at Oakley Plantation. As part of the park's interpretive plan, they are interested in adding interpretive themes related to the African-American experience at the plantation. The only remaining African-American house in the park, however, is the one Sam Scott built in the 1920s. The older slave cabins and outbuildings had been demolished in the early 1950s as part of park development. Materials were stripped from the cabins and used to renovate the Great House and Planter Kitchen. The Scott house, out of visitor access, is currently used for storing heavy equipment. The front of the structure has fallen from its piers and is likely to completely decay in a few years if no repairs are made. The house has not been lived in since 1949, when the State of Louisiana evicted Sam Scott as part of their preservation plan for the park.

How can we protect the past without sacrificing the present? Increasing discussion and controversy in archaeology about issues such as reburial and the archaeological study of disenfranchised communities has demonstrated that we must work to make the past meaningful to the living representatives of communities we study. As archaeologists we must be aware of the impacts of preservation and living history museum development on the living descendents of the people we study and whose history is to be presented.

In the American South, there is increasing interest in the African-American past. This is a very positive trend, however, in many instances, the past is closely linked to the present. Landowners have already recognized that involving preservation groups and developing historic sites provides a mechanism for removing squatters from old plantation housing. We must not allow our interests as archaeologists to interfere with our role as anthropologists, sacrificing the people of the present for the good of the past.

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor: Soon Antigua & Barbuda will have its own archaeologist. Reg Murphy, ex Chairman of our Archaeological Society, through his experienceof archaeology in Antigua, is now studying in Canada earning his Master's Degree. I have been attending Caribbean Archaeological Congresses for many years and have met few black archaeologists from the Eastern Caribbean, so Reg will be one of the first for the Eastern Caribbean and certainly the first born Antiguan. He is closely followed by a fellow Caribbean student at the University of Toronto, Toni Frederick, from Montserrat, working forher B.A. degree. So it seems we will not have to entirely rely on outside archaeologists for the future. Our next step is to save what we have left from the jaws of the bulldozer, so there WILL be something left for Caribbean archaeologists!

Desmond Nicholson Museum of Antigua & Barbuda.

To the Editor: At the SHAs this past January, I presented a paper entitled "African-American Archaeology in the Public Eye." In it I attempted to summarize the work of several organizations which were trying to increase and improve public participation at African-American sites. I concluded with suggestions for creating a network of professionals interested in sharing information about their triumphs and pitfalls in involving the public -- including, but not limited to, black Americans -- in their workon historic or archaeological sites. There are a lot of really good ideas and programs out there, but without a centralized "meeting place," it's hard to find out about them. The response so far has been very supportive. Now I'd like to approach the readership of this Newsletter. If you would like to participate in a network like the one described above, please contact me at this address: Dept. of Archaeological Research, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187-1776. All of these ideas are very preliminary, so patience is encouraged and suggestions are welcome. Especially helpful would be information and ideas about preparing this network for the twenty-first century by getting it onto the information superhighway! Thank you in advance.

Anna Agbe-Davies, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Current Research

Wessyngton Plantation, Robertson County, Tennessee

Submitted by David Babson, Illinois State University

In November of 1994, the Midwestern Archaeological Research Center (MARC) at Illinois State University submitted a report of investigations to the Tennessee Historical Commission. This report, Families and Cabins: Archaeologicaland Historical Research at Wessyngton Plantation, Robertson County, Tennessee is the final report on two Survey and Planning Grant projects undertakenby MARC at Wessyngton Plantation in 1991 and 1993. It includes information about the archaeological investigation of three discrete cabin sites anda five cabin area occupied from the early nineteenth century to the midtwentieth century. It also includes an extensive discussion of African-American genealogy and history developed from an independent program of oral history, genealogy and research in primary documents underway at Wessyngton Plantation since the 1970s. Under the terms of the Survey and Planning Grant program,the purpose of this research was to establish the National Register eligibility of the archaeological site present at Wessyngton Plantation. This was amply established by the work described above, and nomination of the site to the National Register is now under consideration. Manuscript copies of the reportare on file at the Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville, Tennessee. Publication of the report is also under consideration, and may be completed in 1996.

Research Note on the Atlantic Slave Trade Database Project

Submitted by Henry Kamerling,

The following appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of Uncommon Sense, newsletter of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, and was submitted to H-Business at Austin Kerr's invitation (I thought many subscribersin other fields would be interested in knowing about the project). In 1993 the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a consolidated database on the Atlantic slave trade. The aim of the project is to computerize voyage data on most of the slave voyages that sailed from Africa to the Americas from the sixteenth century to the 1860s. The core data will consist of over 200 fields of information, including fields for the names of vessels, captains and shipowners, regions and dates of trade in Europe, Africa and the Americas, and the number, age and gender of slaves confined on the Middle Passage. When the project is completed in three to five years, data on the Atlantic slave trade will be available through computer networking services such as Internet. The first stage of the project established fields of information and integrated numerous computerized data-sets of Atlantic slave voyages that historians have compiled over the past twenty-five years. These sets include: Herbert S. Klein on the slave trades to Havana (1790-1820), Rio de Janeiro (1795-1811) and Virginia (1727-1769), and the Angola slave trade (1723-1771); Svend E. Green-Pedersen on the Danish slave trade (1698-1789); David Eltis on the Atlantic slave trade (1811-1867); and Johannes Postma on the Dutch slave trade (1675-1802). The second stage of the project will computerize published and unpublished sets of slave voyage data compiled by Jean Mettas (French slave trade), Jay Coughtry (Rhode Island slave trade), James Rawley and Joseph Inikori (British slave trades), and then will integrate several new British slave trade data-sets created by Stephen D. Behrendt, David Eltis and David Richardson. Well over half of all transatlantic slave voyages -- including the majority of British, French and Dutch slave voyages -- soon will be recorded in machine-readable format. The major tasks in the project are the matching of fields of information created from widely different sources often for different purposes, and the elimination of duplicate voyages. When completed, the core set of more than 20,000 transatlantic slave voyages will comprise the largest data source for the long-distance movement of peoples before the twentieth century. Refined demographic data on the volume of the trade (and thus of pre-colonial African populations) and the spatial distribution of African peoples throughout the Atlantic world will allow scholars to assess more accurately questions of African state formation, agricultural and ecological change, Africancultural survivals, and the development of the Atlantic economies. Sub-sets of information on vessel tonnage, slave age/gender ratios, and crew/slave mortality will permit a more thorough analysis of shipping productivity, patterns of family structures, and disease transmission in the Atlantic world. The database has been organized so that additional information onslave voyages can be added easily to the set and so that related information, such as African climatic patterns, slave phenotypes, slave rebellions, orslave prices, can be linked to the main data-set through a common variable such as the vessel name or the voyage identification number. Building related files will broaden the scope of analysis from the slave voyage to the impact of the transatlantic slave trade in the creation of the modern world. Indeed, it eventually may be possible to relate individual Africans or groups of Africans to the vessel on which they were disembarked in the Americas, as has been done with other migrant groups. The project organizers welcome additional data on transatlantic slave voyages to include in the consolidated data-set. Stephen D. Behrendt, U. Northern Iowa,, David Eltis, Queen's University,

Section 106 and African-American Archaeology

At the recent Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference in Minneapolis, it seemed to be the consensus that at least 70 percent of the archaeology being conducted in the country today is in response to federal regulations. Similarly, compliance archaeology is the impetus for the rapid and massive growth in the field of African-American Archaeology since the late 1970s noted by Theresa Singleton in her recent bibliography on African-American Archaeology. This newsletter is, in part, a response to that massive growth. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is the basis for virtually all of this private sector or contract archaeology. Recently, it has been made clear in the House and Senate that the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will be underfunded, zeroed out or eliminated altogether as part of the contract with America. From all appearances, the second 100 days will be as busy or busier thant the first 100 days. Other historic preservation programs will also be sharply curtailed or headed toward zero funding.

You might ask yourself why this should be of concern to you or to African-American Archaeology. The reason is simple. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservationis the agency that enforces the implementation of Section 106, without which there would effectively be no African-American Archaeology. We are not talkinga huge amount of money here. The Advisory Council has a budget of around $3 million to oversee implementation in all 50 states and U.S. territories. The Advisory Council and African-American Archaeology need your help. Please write a letter to your Senator and Representative supporting funding of the Advisory Council and Section 106.

Below are some hints from Loretta Neumann, a historic preservation lobbyist working with SAA and the new American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA)to promote historic preservation. Follow them or not, but please write. Include (in readable print) your name and address. Better yet, use your personal, professional, or organizational letterhead stationary. Without an address, the Member has no way of knowing whether you are a constituent. Do not, however, use an organization's letterhead or appear to represent that organization's view without permission. Be polite. Don't alienate the Member and his staff. Even if they disagree with you on this issue, they may be more friendly on the next. You always want to keep the door open. Be brief, to the point, and try to discuss one issue only. If you writeon too many topics, your message is diluted. State in the first sentence why you are writing. If the subject is complex or technical, include a separate fact sheet rather than include all the information in the letter itself. Ask for the Member's position on the issue. This will force the member's staff to research the issue and ensure that you receive a response. Most importantly, it lets the Member know you are taking his or her actions seriously. Always clearly state what action you want your member to take. Underline your request.


The Honorable (full name)

U.S. House of Representatives

Washington, DC 20515 (or)

The Honorable (full name)

U.S. Senate

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Representative (last name) or Senator (last name):

Opening: State why you are writing. Mention Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. State briefly that you want to see the Council funded this year.

Background: Provide applicable background information or describe the issue . If you have an article or fact sheet, enclose it.

Your Interest: Briefly explain why this issue is important to you and/or how it specifically impacts your community or state.

Closing: Thank the member. Restate your request. Ask for a response. Provide your full name and title (if appropriate). Sign with your full name unless you are on a first-name basis. Indicate to whom copies are being sent (it is often useful to show that others will see your letter, too). Sincerely yours,

Electronic version compiled by Thomas R. Wheaton, New South Associates, Inc.

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2005 African Diaspora Archaeology Network
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Last updated: April 16, 2005
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