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African-American Archaeology

Newsletter of the African-American Archaeology Network

Number 21, Spring 1998

John P. McCarthy, Editor


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 Archaeology, Atlanta

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 remain.

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 the next.

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 the story.

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.

References Cited

Apollonio, H.
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 Archaeology 1(3):207-224.

Davids, A.
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 Markell.

Plates in Graves: An Africanism?

John P. McCarthy Greenhorne & O'Mara, Inc., Greenbelt, MD

Comments prepared for the panel discussion: Lessons from Historic Period Cemeteries, 1998 Meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Atlanta


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 identity?

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 interpretation.

Sociocultural Identity

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 of Africa.

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.

References Cited

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.

Fremmer, Ray
1973    Dishes in Colonial Graves: Evidence from Jamaica. Historical Archaeology 3: 59-60.

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 Press, Cambridge.

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.

Internet Resources

The Worldbook African-American Journey: presents a well-produced overview history of Africans in America at:

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: www.

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:

An Anthology of WPA Slave Narratives and other research resources are available at the University of Virginia's site:

American Quarterly: the index for this journal from 1975-95 and full text of more recent issues is available at:

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 civil war.

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 environment.

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") workers.

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

Editorial Staff

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.

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