June 2006 Newsletter
In this issue we present the following articles, news, announcements, and reviews:
On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains
Newspaper reports in late January and early February 2006 announced the discovery of skeletal remains in a colonial period church cemetery in Campeche, Mexico; the reports stressed that these remains represent the earliest evidence of African slavery yet found in the New World. A brief article in the latest issue of Anthropology News, under the header "Excavated Teeth Confirm African Slavery in Colonial Campeche," summarizes the research in Campeche, and implicitly makes a similar claim, though it is more equivocally stated. The author of the article, Vera Tiesler (who had originally discovered the skeletons in 2000), notes that the excavations in Campeche "provide the first physical evidence. . . of [the] early African diaspora in the Yucatan peninsula, and perhaps in the New World" and that "The physical evidence . . . clearly confirms the historical sources that report the forced importation of Africans with the arrival of the Spanish." Although Tiesler does not explicitly claim these people were enslaved, as opposed to having some other form of servitude or a different social status, she maintains that in mid- 16th century Campeche there was "no economic need for hard-labor slavery"; further that "Africans were employed as servants in Spanish households, and their presence in a Catholic cemetery is not unusual for this time, as African slaves were converted to the Catholic religion upon arrival."
Tiesler's Anthropology News article is, in effect, a summary of a much longer article in the January 2006 American Journal of Physical Anthropology, under the authorship of T. Douglas Price, Tiesler, and James H. Burton. The suspicion that some of the recovered skeletons may have been of African birth was first aroused by the presence of dental modification/mutilation in four of the skeletons. These individuals "had tooth filing and decorated chiseling in their permanent teeth characteristic of West African traditions." More fundamentally, however, the case for African birth rests on analyses of strontium isotopes in dental enamel. The analyses, particularly of the four individuals with signs of dental modification, were conducted by Price and Burton at the Laboratory for Archaeological Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They found in these skeletons "unusually high" strontium ratios, "inconsistent with an origin in Mesoamerica, but consistent with origin in West Africa." In brief, they concluded, it is "highly likely" that the individuals with the "highest values" of strontium ratios "came from West Africa. "Although filing and chiseling could not be determined for one of these four," they write, "the other three exhibit the dental decoration characteristic of West Africa." Maintaining that these individuals were interred "sometime in the late 16th century or early 17th century," and are "likely to be among the earliest representatives of the African Diaspora in the Americas," the article avoids making any definitive statements about the social status of the individuals concerned; in fact, in a personal communication, Price emphasized this point: ". . . in truth we cannot know for certain whether these Africans were slaves or not. We know from historical records that there were slaves in Campeche at this time so it seems the most logical explanation."
Price et al. have convinced us that the remains under discussion are, indeed, those of African-born persons and represent "some of the earliest representatives of the African Diaspora in the America"; moreover, it is quite possible, given the historical context of early Campeche, that these persons were enslaved. However, it is clear that the physical evidence in and of itself does not unequivocally demonstrate the social status of the people concerned. Persons of African descent in Campeche at this period could have been free or held other social statuses that were not chattel slavery as it is commonly known and defined in the New World slave societies. Whatever the case, the Campeche remains raise the issue of archaeological interpretations of social systems, in this case the social system of chattel slavery.
In 1978 we published what was then the earliest full-scale monograph based on archaeological and historical research of an enslaved plantation population in the Caribbean (Figure 1; click on the images below to see larger illustrations by the authors). In that book, Plantation Slavery in Barbados, we described the excavations and findings at Newton plantation slave cemetery, as of today still the largest undisturbed plantation cemetery yet discovered in the Caribbean or North America. We argued that archaeological remains alone cannot determine the presence of slavery, and believe the issue is still a timely one. We reprint here excerpts from the final chapter of our book. We do recognize, however, that some of our comments are dated in light of the considerable work that has been done in African American and plantation archaeology since the early 1970s, when we conducted our research in Barbados.Chapter 7, THE ETHNOHISTORICAL APPROACH TO SLAVERY
Archaeological data and information derived from written sources (supplemented on occasion by ethnographic observations) have enabled us to describe various dimensions of the plantation system and slave life and to view cultural changes that took place during the slave period. A great deal of our information could only be acquired from the written record, but archaeology was the sole source of data for certain areas of investigation. This was particularly evident in our discussion of slave mortuary patterns. The documentary sources were crucial for ascertaining the nature of pre- and post-burial behavior, though only the archaeology provided data about the interment of the body in the grave and the use of grave goods. . . . In general, archaeology can make definite contributions to the study of plantation slavery and slave culture because it yields information and generates questions not available in the documentary sources. It nonetheless has limitations because many aspects of plantation slavery and slave life did not leave archaeological traces. . . .
Subsequent studies will probably alter some of our tentative and occasionally speculative conclusions. These conclusions advocate the use of the ethnohistorical approach for studying slave cultures and also have broader implications for archaeological objectives in the study of ahistoric and prehistoric populations. In this chapter, we utilize the synthesis of archaeological and historical data presented in earlier chapters to briefly examine the theoretical and methodological bases of archaeological, anthropological, historical, and ethnohistorical approaches to the study of slave cultures. In distinguishing between ethnohistorical and archaeological approaches to the study of slavery, this chapter also emphasizes the methodological contrast between our study and studies traditionally conducted by many historical archaeologists. . . .THE ETHNOHISTORICAL METHODOLOGY
Within the framework of the research described in this book, ethnohistory . . . . is an approach to describing and understanding culture and cultural processes and, like archaeology, is defined primarily by a methodological criterion. Methodologically, ethnohistory is not solely the companion of archaeology, ethnography, or history, but may also supplement such fields as historical linguistics or paleobiology . . . . Though none of these fields employs an ethnohistorical approach in every research situation, the most significant aspect of ethnohistory is its flexibility in bringing seemingly diverse sources of data to bear on particular problems.
In her study of a Tlingit community, Frederica de Laguna concluded "that archaeological, ethnological, and historical data, if combined and analyzed together, can give a deeper insight than any one type of material or any one methodology alone." . . . [David] Baerreis reemphasized this position in defining the archaeological approach to ethnohistory as " the means for coordinating diverse kinds of data in the solution of anthropological problems . . . . For archaeology, an ethnohistoric approach serves as a means whereby a fundamental link in the broad narrative of man's culture history is achieved." Barbados plantation rewards or incentives are excellent examples of the improved level of interpretation derived from integrating archaeological and historical data. Prior to our archaeological research, written sources yielded fragmentary information that indicated the various types of rewards or incentives and some of the social contexts in which they were allocated. These data, however, were dispersed throughout notes dealing with other dimensions of plantation slavery.
In trying to interpret the archaeological remains from Newton cemetery, we had to account for apparently disparate allocations of artifacts in association with interments, particularly the presence or absence of whole clay pipes and coffins. During the archaeological analysis, notes from written sources were reexamined to isolate references to types of excavated artifacts. In the early stages of analysis we found that pipes and tobacco were sometimes distributed to slaves as rewards and that material assistance at the time of burial was sometimes given to certain slaves. We began to suspect that the occurrence of particular artifacts, such as coffins, with interments may have been a manifestation of plantation rewards or incentives. As a result, the notes were more intensively reexamined, the presence of a reward-incentive system was established to a degree not previously understood, and the function of various archaeological materials as remnants of this system was inferred. In this case, the step-by-step articulation of the historical and archaeological data utilized the historical data for a purpose for which they were not initially intended; furthermore, this articulation produced an interpretation that would have been difficult or delayed on the basis of historical data alone and probably impossible if only archaeological data had been available.
In this instance, applying the ethnohistorical approach suggested a new perspective. Though the historical data were necessary to define the existence of the slave system before questions about rewards and incentives could even be asked, the encounter with specific archaeological data, for which the presence or absence of certain artifactual materials suggested cultural explanations, led to a useful organization and analysis of the historical data. . . . In general, the inability of either history or archaeology to individually deal effectively with the problem of slave culture lies in the limits of the data. The written record is fragmentary, selective, and biased and the slaves themselves did not contribute to this record. Although archaeological data can illuminate some areas of behavior not covered in or obscured by the written records, they also have limitations. Some are practical ones, such as the preservation of cultural materials over time, while others are related to theoretical and conceptual limits of the archaeological record as a basis for interpreting past human behavior. . . .THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORD
Some of the practical limitations of our archaeological record reflect the fact that Barbados is a small island that has experienced heavy population densities, intensive agricultural exploitation and reuse of land, and the recycling of nonperishable building materials over long periods. Hurricanes and the tropical environment have also taken a toll. . . . Daily activities during the slave period also affected the archaeological record, through either redistribution of nonperishable items or changing patterns of settlement and land utilization.
The archaeological record on Barbados reflects the struggle between the island's limited surface area and its dense population. The slaves had no choice in settlement pattern. The criteria for locating slave villages were partially agricultural (not having people occupying good agricultural land) and largely a matter of social control. The result of locating the villages near the plantation yard and the house of the owner or manager was intensive reuse of a limited area for slave habitation. After emancipation, when the ex-slaves were moved to the peripheries of the plantations, the limits of local resources dictated that materials should not rest unused or that land should be unproductive. Available building materials were reused and former slave villages became the sites of new buildings or storage for machinery or equipment or were placed under cultivation. Thus, the limitations of the archaeological record in reflecting slave life on Barbados are partially practical problems of preservation that may or may not be encountered in other situations.
Regardless of preservation, however, no artifactual remains were independently characteristic of slave culture and status. Positive delineation and isolation of data indicative of slave status and slave culture lay at the heart of our analytical problems with the archaeological data from Barbados in general and the data from Newton plantation in particular. Though the written record established that the plantations on which we worked existed prior to 1834 and were, indeed, slave plantations, the archaeological data alone, without the support of documentary evidence, did not reflect an institution or behavioral system identifiable as slavery. This problem presents a major obstacle to any purely archaeological study of slavery and has also confronted others who have worked with the remains of slave cultures.
In Jamaica, for example, [Barry] Higman noted that despite documentary evidence that slaves lived at New Montpelier estate the artifactual materials recovered from house excavations did not reveal the social status of the occupants. The artifacts alone could not identify a slave system. In their excavation of a slave cabin in Georgia, [Robert] Ascher and [Charles] Fairbanks recognized that archaeology might recover data that were not found in literary sources or oral traditions They chose their excavation site, however, because historical sources documented the location of slave cabins, not because they independently arrived at the conclusion that the structural remains they excavated were those of a slave house. Their objective was to gain an archaeological insight into known slave remains, not to test whether such remains were actually indicative of slave habitation. [John] Otto has also indicated that his choice of slave areas to be excavated was based on documentary evidence.
Although archaeological data clearly supplement historical data on the institution of slavery once the presence of slavery is known, the initial identification of a slave system in a society and at a particular site, or areas to be excavated, depends on historical proof. The historical data from Barbados indicated that most slaves were buried in plantation areas set aside for such purposes. There was no specific documentary mention of a slave burial ground at Newton, and in this sense the archaeological research helped to validate the generalization derived from the historical record. Whites were also sometimes buried on plantations, but their graves were usually clearly marked, and they were not buried in the same areas as slaves. Information from Barbadian informants also supported a belief that Newton cemetery was slave in origin. Though the characteristics of the burials were not wholly European, the artifactual material of glass beads, clay pipes, and coffin hardware indicated we were dealing with an historical population. Although metric cranial analyses of the skeletal population were not conducted, they undoubtedly would have demonstrated the Negroid physical identity of the population, but they would not have indicated that the individuals were slaves. All evidence supported a strong inference but nothing archaeological was independently diagnostic of a slave cemetery. . . .
It was generally difficult to identify archaeological materials reflecting the African background of the slaves. Historical evidence, of course, showed that many Africans and their descendants lived in Barbados during the slave period. Because most of these persons were slaves, we could assume with relative assurance that artifactual materials reflecting African motifs and patterns were slave-related; thus one means of identifying slave culture would be through identification of artifacts reflecting African technical or decorative traditions. However, we were unable to define an artifactual complex diagnostic of the slave population. . . .
One of the problems, then, in dealing with the artifacts recovered from the archaeological research was determining what was and what was not a part of the slave milieu. Slave manufactures reflecting African cultural traditions would most likely have been of either ceramic or organic materials, because these were the most readily available resources on the island. We found no organic material and could not identify any ceramics with decorative or manufacturing aspects distinctive of African derivation. Some non-wheel pottery was found, but its cultural affiliation is uncertain. . . .
Similar problems in identifying slave artifacts are seen in [R. Duncan] Mathewson's study of Afro-Jamaican pottery. The ceramics were culturally distinguishable from English manufactured ceramics and some were clearly derived from African ceramic traditions. It is not, however, discernible from the pottery itself that it was made by slaves, although this was not a concern in Mathewson's study. Higman's work in Jamaica has also failed to identify archaeological material uniquely indicative of slavery, and Otto has made a similar observation about his research off the Georgia coast. In observing the cultural materials recovered from excavations at the Kingsley plantation in Florida, Fairbanks reported: "It was surprising that no surely African elements in the material culture could be identified. It has long been known that blacks . . . did manage . . . to leave survivals of their language and other behavioral traits . . . which survive in Afro-American culture until the present. . . . Pottery, ornaments, game pieces, or ritual objects might well be expected in such a milieu. We found nothing, however, that could surely be identified as such. "Why no African-type materials were found in such differing slave situations as Barbados and the American South is not fully clear. Similar observations in these areas, however, suggest that verifying archaeological slave complexes cannot be dependent on survivals or materials derived from African backgrounds.
In interpreting artifacts of slavery or any other artifactual remains, the archaeological context is fundamental. [Michael] Schiffer detailed several ways in which an artifact may move through a society. The two parts of his model of most importance to our study are procurement and lateral cycling Applied to slavery situations, procurement is the manner in which slaves or other members of a slave society obtained material items from commercial or natural sources. Lateral cycling is the passing of items from one segment of the society to another, possibly with a change in function, prior to any permanent discard from active use.
Barbadian slaves procured a large percentage of their nonfood materials from sources equally available to whites and free non-whites. To varying degrees, all segments of society utilized such locally available raw materials as wood, clay, and gourds. Slaves obtained such imported items as cloth, clay pipes, and some tools and cooking utensils by such means as theft, plantation allocation and rewards or incentives or by purchase and exchange on the internal marketing system. In other cases, as artifactual materials were discarded by planters and other free persons, they were laterally cycled into the slave or lower free classes and reused before their final archaeological deposition. . . . The money Barbadian slaves acquired from the sale of cash crops or stolen goods, the birth premiums paid mothers whose children survived their first month, the money given to various plantation officers, and the wages earned by slave tradesmen who were hired out also facilitated the entry of goods into the slave milieu by permitting slaves to purchase products from white and freedman shopkeepers and others. In brief, any patterns of purchase, trade, exchange, or gift giving would have tended to blur absolute artifactual distinctions between the nonslave and slave segments of the island's population.
One of our major interpretative problems was assigning shared artifactual material to a particular segment of a stratified, complex society -- in this case distinct social groups that, for archaeological purposes, occupied more or less the same area and separately, but concurrently, used many of the same resources. Fairbanks faced this problem on the Kingsley plantation and the problem is also seen in Otto's work in Georgia on dietary patterns Otto found the remains of domestic and wild foods used by planters, overseers, and slaves. His excavations were conducted in refuse middens associated with habitation areas of the three groups; the areas were located through documentary evidence and by analogy to other coastal plantations. Otto concluded that status differences could not be discerned among all three groups on the basis of either food or the remains of food procurement equipment. In all three cases, procurement equipment was present in approximately equal quantities. Minor differences were seen in the concentration of certain fish and turtle species at the planter's house, but these items were equally present in the slave and overseer areas. The contrast derived from Otto's archaeological data is between slaves and overseers as a group, and planters as a group, rather than overseers and planters as opposed to slaves or, alternatively, a tripartite distribution.
In Barbados (and apparently in other slave site studies) the artifact assemblages (such as imported and local ceramics, glass beads, clay pipes, hardware) consisted of materials available to and utilized by the slaves as well as other population segments: planters, middle and lower class whites, and freedmen of various socioeconomic strata. Various societal segments probably used the same types of artifacts, or indeed on many occasions the same artifact was discarded by one segment of society, acquired by another, and by a variety of other means transmitted vertically as well as horizontally through the society.ARCHAEOLOGY AND SLAVERY
None of the archaeological data from Newton and other plantations investigated in Barbados are solely indicative of slavery and slave status. The limited comparative data from other research on slaves suggest this generalization may be acceptable from an archaeological perspective. One problem in identifying the physical remains of slaves and artifacts indicative of slave culture is that slave status did not give people distinctive phenotypes or genotypes; nor did it give them material goods that were not found among other segments of the society. A somewhat different perspective on this problem might be derived from envisioning a grave in which two complete human skeletons, one an adult male and the other an adult female, were found. Once we have described their age, sex, manner of interment, and whether or not grave goods were found, we are left with the possibility of social interpretation: were they husband and wife, brother and sister, queen and courtesan, or lovers? We can never know, for these are arranged, genetic, and contractual human relationships that leave no artifactual remains. Despite extensive data on the Newton interments, the archaeological data as such do not establish if the individuals found in the concentrated burial areas, . . . were kinsmen, or what the relationships were, if any, between the adult men and women, or whether the adult in the multiple Burial 69-70 (regardless of whether it was male or female) was a parent of the interred child. Furthermore the archaeological data do not even establish that these persons were slaves.
An extreme but nonetheless useful illustration of potential difficulty in archaeological interpretation of status or social position was the interment of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. At the time of his assassination in the spring of 1975, Faisal was one of the world's wealthiest men and the undisputed leader of his society and government. Although preinterment behavior differed somewhat from what would have occurred had a person of lesser status and prestige died, burial customs were those of the Islamic sect to which Faisal belonged. His body was wrapped in a simple shroud and was interred in a graveyard where commoners as well as royalty are buried. Like other graves in the cemetery, Faisal's had a small mound and was encircled by unmarked stones. Subsequent excavation in the cemetery would yield the physical remains of other members of Saudi royalty, including Faisal's father, but they would be indistinguishable from the many other interments in the same area.
Lewis Binford has contended that "the formal structure of artifact assemblages together with the between element contextual relationships should and do present a systematic and understandable picture of the total extinct cultural system" and that "there has been as yet no attempt to assess the limitations of the archeological record for yielding different kinds of information". We submit, however, that our study of plantation slavery and slave culture is such an assessment of limitation for one broad area of archaeological research. "Even if all the material items in a culture are related to its non-material aspects, the archaeological remains may be so limited, altered, or destroyed that a complete description of the past cannot be reconstructed from them . . . because the complete past is simply not reflected in the material that remains." (Watson, LeBlanc, and Redman 1971:21).
In Barbados and in archaeological research on slave cultures elsewhere, the means for extracting a more useful body of data has been to utilize historical records dealing with slavery in the specific instances under investigation. Once historical documents have established the existence of slavery, excavated materials have contributed to the study of slave cultures and provide a new perspective on the written sources. The same perspective would have been impossible on the basis of the excavated materials alone. Slavery is an institution of variable structure that cannot be inferred, deduced, or otherwise derived from purely archaeological remains. A search of the literature of prehistory has revealed a glaring lack of mention of slavery, not because prehistorians have been methodologically naive but simply because archaeological data do not identify slave status and slavery. The fact that there were blacks in Barbados who were free, Amerindians who were either free or slave, and poor whites who were free or indentured servants (but who lived at the same low economic level as some freedmen and even black slaves) is also a cause for interpretative concern when only artifactual or skeletal remains are used.
Although the archaeological record has definite limitations, archaeology can in fact contribute to the sociocultural history of "inarticulate" peoples . . . who left no written records and about whom documentary sources are often silent, contradictory, or biased. We believe that plantation slavery and slave culture can be most profitably explored through the ethnohistorical approach advocated in this book and that our work has shown more detailed results than might have been obtained by employing only one source of data or a single methodology. At the same time, the excavation results from Barbados and other New World slave sites clearly indicate that archaeologists who do not employ the ethnohistorical approach cannot effectively deal with the problem of slavery and slave culture. As [Bruce] Trigger has noted in a more general vein, "Archaeologists must learn to live with the realization that their desire to study whole cultural systems cannot be realized. This, however, is not meant to be an unconstructive comment. On the contrary, the real weakness of much modern archaeology can be attributed to the tendency of many archaeologists to treat their discipline as being merely the 'past tense of ethnology' or a kind of 'paleoanthropology,' rather than defining its goals in terms of the potentialities of its data."
Our study has shown the substance of Trigger's remarks to be true for plantation slavery and slave life. In general, we have defined certain limits to one area of archaeological endeavor; we also believe that we have defined new directions in the study of plantation slavery and slave culture that can be undertaken by applying an archaeological methodology within the ethnohistorical framework.Notes
. Thanks to Jane Landers and T. Douglas Price for their help with our introductory comments.
. See, for example, Wisconsin State Journal (31 Jan. 2006), Los Angeles Times (4 Feb. 2006), New York Times (31 Jan. 2006), and various wire service reports on LexisNexis.
. Vera Tiesler, "Excavated Teeth Confirm African Slavery in Colonial Campeche," Anthropology News, April 2006, p. 18.
. T. Douglas Price, Vera Tiesler, and James H. Burton, "Early African Diaspora in Colonial Campeche, Mexico: Strontium Isotopic Evidence," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, published on-line, 27 January 2006.
. For evidence that dental modification/mutilation did not take place among persons of African descent in the New World and that its presence on skeletal remains is suggestive of African birth, see J.S. Handler et al, "Tooth Mutilation in the Caribbean: Evidence from a Slave Burial Population in Barbados," Journal of Human Evolution 11 (1982): 297-313; and J. S. Handler, "Determining African Birth from Skeletal Remains: A Note on Tooth Mutilation," Historical Archaeology 28 (1994): 113-19.
. T. Douglas Price to Handler, e-mail communication, 13 March 2006; quoted with permission.
. Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation (Harvard University Press, 1978).
. See, for example, the detailed and lengthy report on the "African Burial Ground" in Lower Manhattan, published on-line in February 2006, on the website of the General Services Administration.
. For the sake of brevity we have eliminated references to this section; these can be found in the Handler and Lange volume cited above.
. In our initial discussion of Schiffer's procurement and lateral cycling concepts, the focus was on artifacts of material culture slaves obtained on the island (white clay pipes, buttons, European pottery, coffin hardware and other items). Such articles appear to have been broadly procured. Artifacts that apparently came directly or indirectly from Africa, however, such as copper bracelets, a pipe from the Gold Coast, and carnelian beads (which ultimately originated in Cambay, India) had a much more limited distribution and did not cycle freely among all levels of society.
. New York Times, 27 March 1975; Time Magazine, 7 April , 1975.
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Archaeology of the Boston Saloon
Abstract: Buffalo soldiers and Black cowboys are popular symbols of African American heritage in the West. The archaeological remains of the African American owned Boston Saloon provide yet another example of this legacy in the context of mining boomtowns. The Boston Saloon operated during the 1860s and 1870s in Virginia City, Nevada to serve that community's African Americans. Hollywood portrayals and western historical literature tend to present saloons and mining boomtowns as sordid places populated primarily by European Americans, with Chinese and Native Americans on the margins. Yet African Americans rarely enter this popular imagery. When synthesized with insights from documentary records, the Boston Saloon's archaeological remnants enhance an understanding of the cosmopolitan dimensions of the so-called, "wild West."
A gunshot pierced the smoky air in the small, boomtown saloon. It came from the poker table, where all but one the players sprang to their feet. One of the players writhed on the floor as blood spilled from his leg. The shot was an accident, caused by a pistol falling from someone's lap and discharging when it hit the floor. Although his leg was sore for a while, the victim survived. Except for the man shot in the leg, who happened to be the only white man in the saloon at the moment, all the participants in this scene were of people of color.
The Territorial Enterprise, a northern Nevada newspaper that once employed writers such as Samuel Clemens, reported the accidental shooting summarized above (Territorial Enterprise 7 August, 1866). The event occurred in the Boston Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, shortly after the American Civil War. Upon telling this story to friends and colleagues, I initially did not indicate that African Americans filled the saloon. I then proceeded to ask these individuals to describe how they imagined the characters in the scene. They gave Hollywood-inspired answers like "Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne." Although Hollywood's popular depictions forge a common, monotonous misperception of saloons that ignore their diversity, historical and archaeological records demonstrate the variety of these leisure institutions, including saloons that served as "popular resorts" for people of color living in mining communities (Territorial Enterprise 7 August, 1866).
The Boston Saloon represents one such establishment that operated between the 1860s and the 1870s in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada. Indeed, Hollywood portrayals and western historical literature tend to present saloons and mining boomtowns as sordid places primarily populated by European Americans, with Chinese and Native Americans on the margins. Even though they rarely enter the story of the diverse populations of mining boomtowns, people of African ancestry were there, and the Boston Saloon is but one instance that provides an opportunity to overcome the more Eurocentric stereotype of the mining West in places like Virginia City, the heart of Nevada's Comstock Mining District.
Founded in 1859, the Comstock Mining District produced millions of dollars in silver and gold and inspired the invention of technologies and mining methods used throughout the world. Virginia City (Figure 1; click on the images below to see larger illustrations by the author) was the heart of the Comstock Mining District. The Bonanza television series popularly presented Virginia as a rustic town. Yet the people of the Comstock, particularly those in Virginia City, lived in an urbanized, cosmopolitan, industrial setting. At its peak of about 20,000 to 25,000 people, Virginia City and its sister community of Gold Hill merged into one of the larger cities west of the Mississippi (James 1998: 143-166; Johnson 2000). From around 1860 to the late 1870s, the Comstock's mining wealth captured international headlines and Virginia City developed a complex, cosmopolitan community, attracting immigrants from all over the globe. People from North, South, and Central America, Europe, Asia, and Africa came to the mining district, hoping to harness some of its globally renowned glitter of silver and gold. The silver and gold did not last, however, and beginning in the late 1870s, the Comstock mines began to fail. The ensuing exodus caused Virginia City to decline to a "ghost town" of fewer than 500 people by the 1930s. Today, multi generation residents, "Comstockers," and several entrepreneurial newcomers operate a series of shops, saloons, ice cream parlors, hotels, and restaurants that cater to droves of tourists seeking to experience vestiges of the "wild" West.
Virginia City's modern saloons engage the sensationalism of the region's legendarily notorious character, sporting names such as "The Bucket of Blood Saloon" and boasting roadside attractions, such as the "Suicide Poker Table" at the Delta Saloon (Figure 2). While networks of mine shafts and tunnels lay deep beneath Virginia City's streets, hundreds of thousands of artifacts lay much closer to the surface, beneath cracked boardwalks, creaking floorboard, and modern parking lots. For anyone interested in understanding the authenticity behind the mining West's mythic and complex history, Virginia City is an archaeological goldmine.
Archaeologists and historians working in Virginia City joke about the excellent chances one has to place a shovel into the ground in this community and hit a saloon. The African American owned Boston Saloon was among these, and its remains lay in a parking lot behind the Bucket of Blood Saloon. An archaeological excavation (Figure 3) during the summer of 2000 recovered bottles, glassware, tobacco pipes, and animal bones from remains of the Boston Saloon beneath the Bucket of Blood Saloon's parking lot. This project represented a cooperative venture between the University of Nevada, Reno Department of Anthropology's Archaeological Field School, the Comstock Archaeology Center, the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Reno-Sparks Chapter, the National Endowment for the Humanities, AmArcs of Nevada, and the Bucket of Blood Saloon.Virginia City Saloons and the Archaeology of the Boston Saloon
Saloons were quite common along Virginia City's sprawling urban landscape and usually outnumbered all other retail establishments in mining boomtowns. Over 100 saloons reportedly operated in and around Virginia City during the 1870s (Lord 1883: 377; West 1979: xiv-xv; Duis 1983: 1). Public drinking houses clearly outnumbered many other business enterprises in that community. Numerous advertisements in historic newspapers portray the assortment of Virginia City saloons, including those that offered customers billiards, poker games, bowling alleys, reading rooms, meals, Havana cigars, female entertainment, female companionship, dancing, coffee, cock fights, "chicken arguments," dog fights, shooting galleries, and, of course, a range of alcoholic beverages (e.g., Territorial Enterprise, January-April, 1867 and September and February 1870; Virginia Evening Chronicle, November 1872; Daily Stage, September-October 1880; The Footlight March 1, 1880; Lord 1883: 93; Hardesty and James 1995: 4-5; Hardesty, et al. 1996).
This variety suggests the myriad ways shrewd entrepreneurs tried to fill niches in a saturated market. Well-paid miners worked in eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, in a physically and mentally challenging underground environment (James 1998: 58, 126, 140-142). Many Virginia City businesses, especially saloons, operated at all hours to cater to those getting off work at various times. It was common and wise business practice to mine the miners, as they tended to have disposable income, and because of a shorter-than-usual work day, they had free time, especially during mining bonanzas. Saloons were common places to while away free time, drink, get a hot meal, and spend money.
As boomtowns such as Virginia City expanded and became internationally famous, more people arrived from all over the world, amplifying the cultural and ethnic diversity of these communities (James 1998: 143-166; Johnson 2000). Well-established cities therefore supported saloons that filled additional entertainment niches by catering to specific cultural affiliations. Saloons came to reflect the diversity of these and other urban American centers more than any other social institution. As the variety of cultures and subcultures increased so did the need for drinking houses to service the needs of each group (West 1979: 43; Duis 1983: 143, 169). Upon arrival in the region's bustling boomtowns, immigrants frequently found a foreign, intimidating, and often hostile environment (e.g., Captain 1995), comprised of distinct groups of people living, working, and socializing in a setting of intense cultural contact. Saloons owned by a specific cultural group often accommodated customers of similar backgrounds and provided places of refuge and solidarity.
The Boston Saloon operated from the heart of the internationally-famous, mining boomtown, Virginia City, Nevada during the 1860s and 1870s. The mere existence of an archaeological site that once held an African American saloon has the power to revise more traditional, western historical stories that are overly Eurocentric and that have focused on the contributions of "English speaking white men" (Limerick 1987: 58; see also, Dixon 2005: 164). Upon perusing the literature related to the archaeology of free African Americans in the West, it became clear that there were only a few archaeological investigations related to this topic (e.g., Guenther 1988; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 1992; Wood, et al. 1999; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 2001). Thus, archaeological descriptions of these individuals are rather scarce west of the 100th meridian and absolutely lacking in the context of the mining West. The discovery of the Boston Saloon provided the opportunity to change that.
Historical records were essential to locate this nearly-forgotten business and to hone in on the locations of African American households and businesses in Virginia City. Elmer Rusco (1975) started this process. More recently, historian and Nevada State Historic Preservation Officer, Ron James, proceeded to examine a series of historical records, including directories and census manuscripts, to figure out how many people of African descent lived in Virginia City during the mining boom and to identify where they were living in that community (e.g., Kelly 1863; Collins 1865; Virginia & Truckee Railroad Directory 1873-1874). Significantly, James discovered that integration was the rule (James 1998: 152). In other words, African Americans in Virginia City did not appear to have lived in a distinct or designated community as did people of Asian ancestry, with their neighborhood of Chinatown. Instead, people of African descent were living in locations scattered throughout town and incorporated within Virginia City's diverse, international community.
People of color who lived in Virginia City and who visited the surrounding Comstock Mining District during the latter portion of the nineteenth century found themselves amidst a complex political climate that overtly and subtly pervaded many aspects of their lives and demonstrating an intriguing pattern of integration, marginal survival, and success (James 1998: 7, 152-153). On the one hand, they appeared to have more freedom and opportunity there than in many other parts of the country in terms of economic successes and an overall tone of integrated living. On the other hand, they consistently experienced racist undertones and overtly restrictive attitudes and laws. Their lives were composed of a complexjuxtaposition of integration and prejudice and of neighborly acceptance and ill treatment. Such variation in treatment of African Americans in the West was common, and experienced by African American soldiers stationed all over that region (Schubert 1971: 411).
Ironically, this fact initially hindered attempts to carry out an archaeology of the African Diaspora in this boomtown because of the probability for mixed cultural deposits. That is, integration rendered it impossible to locate archaeological remains that could accurately be linked with people of African ancestry. Furthermore, their business enterprises left few traces of their presence from an archaeological point of view because they, like many boomtown entrepreneurs, frequently changed locations. Given this, it initially appeared to be impossible to locate archaeological remains that could accurately be linked with their life and work in this community.
Then Ron James correlated several historical references to deduce the historic location of the Boston Saloon. Multiple lines of evidence, including historical newspaper articles from the Territorial Enterprise, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad Directory (1873-1874), and Nevada State Census records (1875) all pointed to the location of a saloon that was owned by African American William A. G. Brown and that catered to a clientele of comprised of people of color (e.g., Territorial Enterprise August 7, 1866). The long-lived Boston Saloon stayed at a single location, the southwest corner of D and Union Streets in Virginia City, for nine years (1866-1875).
William A.G. Brown, an African American from Massachusetts, owned the Boston Saloon and catered to people of African ancestry. Brown arrived in Virginia City by 1863, at which time he worked as a street shoe polisher. By 1864, he went into business for himself and founded the Boston Saloon on B Street, an upslope location along Virginia City's mountainside setting and well beyond the center of town. Sometime between 1864 and 1866, Brown moved his saloon from the B Street setting to a second locality at the southwest corner of D and Union Streets, where his business thrived until 1875, at which time it disappeared from historical records (Figure 4). The saloon's new and final setting at the corner of D and Union Streets happened to be the heart of Virginia City's entertainment and red light district. Historical records indicate that, in addition to cribs and brothels, this area housed Virginia City's finest opera houses and theatres, and many of the nearby saloons were considered respectable establishments. The Boston Saloon flourished at this location until 1875 (Kelly 1863; Collins 1865; James 1998: 154; Territorial Enterprise, August 7, 1866).
Entrepreneurial enterprises in Virginia City were at the mercy of mining boom and bust cycles -- or the mere threat of the latter. Given this economic reality, such business endeavors were fortunate to last a few months. In this context, William Brown's enterprise represents a major success. This success is perhaps even more profound when considering entrepreneurial discrimination of drinking houses in Massachusetts, where Brown was born. He named his Virginia City establishment the "Boston Saloon." Whether the paradox was intentional is unknown, but it is important to point out that in Brown's home state African Americans suffered major entrepreneurial discrimination that "all but eliminated their participation in the Boston liquor business" by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Duis 1983: 170).
Historical documents described the Boston Saloon as "the popular resort of many of the colored population," and African American writers lamented the loss of "a place of recreation of our own" in Virginia City after the Boston Saloon closed (Pacific Appeal October 26, 1875; Territorial Enterprise August 7, 1866). Wording in such sources suggests that the Boston Saloon catered to people of African ancestry, and it is quite likely that the drinking house served various socioeconomic segments of that group. African American men and women in Virginia City occupied an array of occupational statuses, including bootblacks, servants, boarding house operators, and physicians (e.g., James 1998: 97-98, 153-154; Rusco 1975: 73-80). The Boston Saloon likely catered to the socioeconomic range of these individuals, whereas other Virginia City saloons catered to distinct socioeconomic segments of European and European American populations (Hardesty and James 1995: 3-5). Information from historical records helps shed light on people and events associated with the Boston Saloon, and this is outlined in Dixon (2005).
William Brown disappears from all records until 1893; he died on the Comstock on April 29, 1893 of that year, at the age of 63 (Storey County Death Vitals 1882-1911). John Martin, who served as a trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Virginia City as early as 1867 and who worked as a bootblack in Virginia City during the mining boom, was among the witnesses to Brown's death (Rusco 1975: 177; V&TRR Directory 1874). Martin was an African American who had been in townjust as long as William Brown himself.Archaeology at the Boston Saloon
The above historical information on William Brown's Boston Saloon becomes even richer when one integrates archaeological discoveries into the story. Today, an asphalt parking lot covers the Boston Saloon's D Street location (Figure 5). This seemed a minor obstacle to carry out the first known archaeological excavation of an African American saloon in the American West, as well as the first known archaeological investigation of an African American site within the State of Nevada.
Once the backhoe removed the parking lot's asphalt barrier, the crew used a "Bobcat" to remove additional parking lot fill. After commencing with hand excavation, crew knew they reached the Boston Saloon's buried deposits by observing a distinct grayish-black-colored layer of ash and charred wood. This layer represented a blatant reminder of Virginia City's Great Fire of 1875. In the case of the Boston Saloon, that ashy temporal marker took on deeper meaning because, according to information from the historical overview described above, the establishment's proprietor, William Brown, closed his saloon in 1875, just months before the well-documented, devastating blaze. Due to his establishment's nine year operation at that single location, material traces of the saloon accumulated in tiny layers until they were capped by the charred wood, ash, and other debris associated with the 1875 fire.
After recording and processing the Boston Saloon collection, it became clear that the project had yielded an impressive array of late-nineteenth-century materials from a bustling corner of Virginia City's Red Light District. Even so, without comparing this collection to other Virginia City saloon collections, it would be difficult to make meaningful observations and interpretations about the Boston Saloon collection. Due to a series of previous historical archaeological endeavors in Virginia City (e.g., Hardesty and James 1995; Hardesty, et al. 1996; James 1998; Dixon, et al. 1999; Dixon 2005), three other contemporaneous Virginia City saloon collections had been recovered: an Irish-owned saloon and shooting gallery; a German-owned Opera House's "theater saloon"; and an Irish-owned drinking house in a notorious neighborhood. Considering the fact that there were at least 100 saloons operating in Virginia City at one time, these four are too small a sample to develop grandiose statements about the West's public drinking culture and about the Boston Saloon's role in that broader context. Still, this is a start. And the history associated with each archaeological collection establishes the framework for a study of diversity using an iconic characteristic of a cosmopolitan western boomtown -- the saloon.
Unsurprisingly, archaeological excavations at the Boston Saloon and other Virginia City drinking establishments turned up a profusion of bottles and bottle fragments. The majority of these include dark green glass wine, champagne, and ale bottles. Mostly recovered in thousands of fragments, these beverage containers were the most common and abundant bottle type represented in the Boston Saloon assemblage, as well as in the other three saloons, suggesting a similarity in basic, mass-produced menu items across cultural and socioeconomic lines.
Artifact quantities provided the best evidence for distinctions among these establishments. For example, the highest quantities of intact bottles unearthed during the Boston Saloon dig were aqua blue "Essence of Jamaica Ginger" bottles (Figure 6). This product consisted of a certain type of ginger, known as white ginger, and was prepared in Jamaica (Bradley 1901: 169). Historical newspaper advertisements describe this product as a cure for nausea and other "diseases" of the stomach and digestive organs (Territorial Enterprise, November 24, 1866). It also may have provided a substitute for alcoholic beverages (Kallet and Schlink 1933: 151). Additionally, ginger might have been added to ale to make a flavored beer, or it could have been combined with soda water to make a non alcoholic, ginger flavored drink. Although it is not currently possible to prove this product's use in such mixtures, there is evidence of soda water bottles and ale bottles at the Boston Saloon, suggesting that all of the above could have been menu options at that establishment. Whether those menu items were mixed in any way, however, is open to speculation.
Advertisements for saloon lunches in Virginia City were quite common (e.g., Territorial Enterprise, 1 January 1867: 4; Virginia Evening Chronicle, 4 November 1872: 1). Meals were common among the various saloon offerings, and the "saloon-restaurant combination was a fixture in the mining camps" (Conlin 1986: 174, 176). Faunal remains, condiment containers, and trace elements of food residues indicate that the Boston Saloon was among those drinking houses that offered meals, and this is where William Brown's establishment appears to stand out from the other three establishments. A comparative faunal analysis indicated that the Boston Saloon served more expensive cuts of meat than the three other Virginia City saloons (Figures 7 and 8), with a much larger percentage of high-quality cuts of beef and lamb associated with the Boston than the others (Dixon 2002: 147-158; Dixon 2005: 87-95).
Excavations at the Boston Saloon also unearthed fragments of a colorless glass bottle, with an embossed label, reading, "TABASCO//*PEPPER*//SAUCE." This bottle, with its thin lip, angular shoulder, and label, turned out to be something of a "missing link" in the pepper sauce company's bottle chronology, becoming the only known example of a transitional form of Tabasco® bottles from the company's earliest years of operation (Figure 9). The bottle's angular shoulder and its embossed basal mark with embossed six-pointed stars were not unusual, but the Boston Saloon's bottle stood out because it had those traits in combination with a relatively thin lip. Up to that point, Tabasco® historians believed that the earliest bottles made especially for the pepper sauce had much thicker lips (Shane Bernard and Ashley Dumas, 2002, personal communication).
In 1868, Edmund McIlhenny produced his first commercial batch of pepper sauce on Avery Island, Louisiana using the pepper Capsicum frutescens, bottled in second-hand cologne bottles (Orser and Babson 1990: 107). By 1869, McIlhenny made bottles especially for his pepper sauce; the bottle type at the Boston Saloon may represent one of the earliest of these special-made containers for the product. The archaeology crew unearthed the bottle from the buried deposits affiliated with the 1875 fire. This provides a chronological control that places the bottle's appearance in the Boston Saloon sometime between 1869 and the Great Fire of 1875. The pepper sauce company, however, has no records of their product being shipped to Nevada during that period.
The Tabasco® bottle's presence at the Boston Saloon and absence from the other Virginia City saloons may suggest an affiliation with African American cuisine or beverages, given the evidence for pepper sauces in many traditional African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American dishes (Shange 1998: 29). This cannot be proven, however, and is an example of the ways in which artifacts can lead archaeologists only so far before their interpretations become mere speculation. In certain cases, oral history may be able to shed light on the meanings and used of certain products (e.g., Mullins 1999). Yet oral histories were not an option for the Boston Saloon project, since African American descendants, who could provide such insights, could not be found. They, like many others living in western boomtowns, moved away from these urban centers once the bustle and commerce associated with mining bonanzas.
Despite the uncertainties of interpretations associated with the Tabasco® bottle, one fact remained certain -- the sauce was actually used in a meat-based meal. This was indicated by gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC/MS) testing on a red colored stain marking the surface of one of the artifacts recovered during the Boston Saloon excavation. GC/MS testing on that stain detected a mix of this red pepper sauce and lipids from animal fat (Dixon 2006).
Archaeological remains of fine meals and early Tabasco® use at the Boston Saloon are only segments of this establishment's story. Other artifacts enrich an understanding of this drinking house's daily operations. For instance, an array of tobacco pipes reveals an indulgent, smoky complement to the saloon's social atmosphere. While some were made of white clay in Glasgow, Scotland and represented a common find on nineteenth-century archaeological sites, a handful of others were made of red clay and are rather unique in that no other pipe styles of their kind have been found from this period for comparison (Figure 10).
Among the various artifacts representative of smoking paraphernalia, one tobacco pipe stem fragment stood out, because it was marred with teeth clench marks. Teeth clench marks indicate that this object made contact with the inside of someone's mouth, and this provided the opportunity to carry out DNA tests to see if any microscopic biological remains lingered from the pipe user's saliva. Testing on this item recovered one female DNA profile from the area near the borehole and the tooth marks (Dixon 2006). This provides evidence that a woman used at least one tobacco pipe from the Boston Saloon. While one woman's DNA does not overturn powerful stereotypes, this discovery provides an explicit incentive for rethinking the male-dominated imagery of the western saloon (West 1979: 145).
An array of fancy buttons and dress beads, also unearthed from the saloon, adds a bit more to this story (see Dixon 2005: 124-132). In light of the relatively small amount of women's clothing fasteners found at other Virginia City saloons, the quantity, diversity, and vividness of these objects at the Boston Saloon revealed a major distinction that set this place apart from the others: women -- and rather well-dressed women -- either patronized or worked in this establishment to a much greater degree than they did at the other places.
In addition to women, the saloon's atmosphere included the glow of gas lights. The pipes and fixtures emerged during excavations (Figure 11), but details about the gas lights became evident in the lab, with the observation of patent information on one of the light fixture fragments. Associated patent information indicates that the Boston Saloon's lighting represented a new technology that cut down on the fumes typically associated with such lighting (U.S. Patent Records, 24 December 1872). While some visitors to western saloons indicate a stale, fume-filled, dimly-lit atmosphere (e.g., West 1979: 42), the presence of these lights at least implies an attempt to provide a more clean ambiance within the Boston Saloon.
Other artifacts complement that setting, namely fine crystal stemware (Figure 12). Virginia City saloons spanned a range of decors, from simple pine bars to upscale drinking houses with velvet wallpaper and shiny decanters (Lord 1883: 93). It is clear the Boston Saloon was on the finer end of this scale.
Such elegant remains combat racist assumptions about African American saloons as described during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (e.g. Duis 1983: 160). Furthermore, an early journalist's description of the first early version of William Brown's saloon depicted it as "a dead fall" (Hoff 1938: 52). As discussed above, sometime after this, by 1866, Brown moved his establishment to the bustling intersection of D Street and Union Street. The archaeological record indicates that the new location was anything but a dead fall.
Descriptions of places like the Boston Saloon provide fodder for sanguine conclusions about life for African Americans in the West. Although racial prejudice was not as widespread in the nineteenth century West as it was in the Jim Crow South, it is important to bear in mind that the West was not a "utopian promised land" for people of African descent (Woods 1998: 182-183; see also James 1998: 152-153; Dixon 2002: 40-41; Schubert 1971: 411; Rusco 1975: 56-58). Even so, African American families worked together to make better lives for themselves, as did groups, or communities of African Americans in the West. The chronicles of these individuals are numerous and complex. The Boston Saloon is merely one of these stories, presenting an understanding of a place of leisure in Virginia City, Nevada.Conclusion
Leisure studies call attention to the ways people developed and maintained self-ascribed ethnic, socioeconomic, and/or gender-based identity during their free, leisure time (Cunningham 1980: 10-12; Rosenzweig 1983: 152, 225; Peiss 1986: 4-10; Captain, 1995: 93-94; see also Murphy 1997). By providing opportunities to socialize with people with similar life experiences, leisure activities eased the transition for newcomers of various backgrounds to new and often hostile social settings and helped them maintain distinctions in those settings (e.g., Handlin 1941). As places of leisure, saloons encouraged such identity and became physical places which harbored the American West's cultural diversity and fostered its cosmopolitan culture.
Today, the site of the Boston Saloon is covered by a parking lot, which was replaced after excavations ended in the summer of 2000. A sign describing and dedicated to the Boston Saloon currently hangs on the main street, C Street, in Virginia City, on the south wall of the well- visited tourist location, the Bucket of Blood Saloon. This sign is intended to remind visitors that places like the Boston Saloon lay beneath the streets of this bustling town in the American West to cultivate a sense of mutual respect for the diverse cultures comprising the history and current character of the United States and of the rest of the modern world (e.g., Asante 1998: xi).References
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Iron Smelting in Wollega, Ethiopia
Abstract: The author is a graduate student affiliated with Addis Ababa University and the University of Bergen, who is currently concentrating on ethnoarchaeological studies in Ethiopia. He has carried out ethnographic field work on iron smelting traditions in West Ethiopia among the Oromo. Mr. Burka has also worked on reconstructing iron smelting techniques and traditions that had a long heritage in that region but declined from regular use over four decades ago. In this field report, he describes his direct observations of methods and traditions of ore mining and treatment, charcoal making, clay extraction, tuyere making, furnace construction, and smelting. This ethnoarchaeological study should provide highly valuable data for other researchers to use in formulating ethnographic analogies for use in archaeological investigations of iron production activities at other sites in Africa and the Americas.
This paper presents my observations of iron smelting procedures at Walagee, in the district of Abee-Dongoroo in Wollega, Ethiopia. I carried out ethnographic work among members of the iron working community at Walagee in three separate trips. I will present my observations of the process of iron working recorded in two of those trips. The third trip was concerned with discussing the social place of the old smelters. The themes that are included in this description are extraction and processing of iron ore (gordana Sibiilaa in Afaan Oromo language), tuyeres preparation (buudaa, kololii, and madabii) , charcoal making (cilaattii), furnace preparation (boolla buufaa), and finally, smelting activities.Smelting Reconstruction: First Round
Mining and Preparation of Iron Ore (Gordana Sibiilaa)
In the first round of ethnographic work that I carried out in July 2005, we were taken to the old mining site at a locality called Faallee. Hence, the ore is locally called Gordana Faallee, or "Faallee's ore." We were led by Obbo Moosisaa Gaaggaa, one of the former owners of the mining sites at Faallee and a participant in smelting activities in the past. Members of the "forgers" who volunteered to demonstrate smelting activities also accompanied us. Descendants of "old smelters" of Malkee only helped in reconstructing the story, to which the new smelters and I listened carefully. I was later informed that old smelters used to complain that people are confusing them with the forgers (called the tumtuu). It was probably because the old smelters were afraid that they might be called forgers that they refused to participate in the demonstration activities. They were also too old to physically participate or organize labor. The positive part was that the forgers had many live memories of iron smelting activities as it was orally passed down in their society. Accordingly, I had to accept members of the forgers who volunteered to demonstrate based on the story they listened to as well as the help received by an individual who had participated in smelting in the early 1960s.
The former ore mining site is now covered by bushes and coffee plants. We were told to take care while walking in the bush and to avoid stepping on pits that were not visible because some of the old mining pits have collapsed and others had become covered with bushes as well as coffee plants. Obbo Moosisaa led us to one of the old mining pits, at which he knew there existed left-over deposits of ore from earlier mining. The pit belonged to the known smelter Obbo Wayyeessaa Bokoree. He asked the forgers to clear the bush and the top soil and they did this. Under the top soil, there lies a subsoil that is heavier in texture and consistency, but as red in color as the top soil. He told us the ore was mined from the bottom of the pit about 20 meters deep. He said that this ore is not different from what can be mined anew in the area, although some of the forgers doubted that claim (click on the images below to see photographs by the author of these and other reconstruction activities).
The new smelters then carried a sack of the ore to the river nearby, called Hagmsa Faallee, where cleaning of ore took place in the past. Before washing took place, the new smelters cut bark of an acacia tree and spread it near the edge of the stream as a surface upon which the cleaning would take place. One of the old smelters, Obbo Nagaash Fayyisaa, also participated in this process. Then washing was undertaken. As they continued to add water to the ore and the lighter impurities washed down, the color of the ore gradually changed from red to black. Since it was rainy season, the river in which they were washing did not have very clean water. As a result, the ore was not adequately cleaned from the other matrices. The washing was not thorough, because the participants also complained that they were tired. Then the ore was taken to the forgers' village and was weighed the next morning to be 17 kilograms. The ore was put aside for the smelting day.Making Tuyeres
In this discussion, I will mainly focus on the clay tuyeres known as madabii or qunxurroo. Two tuyeres made of clay are needed for the smelting. Another eight tuyeres are made from horn and iron sheets. Since the horn (buudaa) and iron (kololii or mundoo) tuyeres used for forging and smelting purposes were similar both in terms of size and preparation, there was no problem for every forger to own such tuyeres and maintain them at their cottages. I asked the smelter when he would prepare the other two clay tuyeres, and he said that he could do so when he prepared the bellows. He said these tuyeres do not need drying or much technique for preparing them and he makes them only for the new bag bellows. The buudaa and kololii tuyeres are permanently attached to a bag bellows. Unlike the madabii ones, the horn and iron tuyeres do not have direct contact with the fire, and once they were made they could be reused for different projects likely over a span of years. The buudaa tuyere is cut and prepared from the horn of cattle and inserted into the bag bellows through the mouth to protrude through the only opening at the bottom of the bag left for this purpose. The iron tuyere is inserted from inside the bag to protrude through the opening of the horn, sealing it tightly so that the air should not leak out. Leather string attached to the bag is used to wrap around the horn and the edge of the bag to prevent air from escaping. Preparation of the buudaa tuyere did not take much time since it needs no special attention.
Darbush Kumsaa, a man of about late thirties in age, volunteered to demonstrate the smelting and assumed the place of master smelter. He also oversaw the production of the tuyeres. Clay (suphee) was obtained from a location that was about a ten-minute walk from Darbush's house and about five minutes from his forging (smelting) station. Early in the morning, Darbush led us to Laga Suphee (the Clay River), where his father, the master forger of the village, used to mine for clay to make his tuyeres. An individual named Kabaa Miijanaa, in the hamlet of Jawaj, corroborated this information and reported that his father, an old smelter, used to extract clay for madabii making from this same river. Darbush and his elder brother, Korentii, mined the clay soil after cleaning it from dirt and top soil until they found a coarse and masticated sample.
Then the clay soil was taken back to the masoo village. Although only two madabii tuyeres were needed, they decided to make four so that they could use the rest as a reserve supply. They undertook a division of labor for making the tuyeres. They said that pounding the clay was to increase its elasticity (walqabachisa). The process is known as tumuu, for beating or pounding. After they were satisfied that the clay was softened, they divided the clay soil among themselves to make the tuyeres. They made the tuyeres on the same day that the clay was extracted from the Clay River. I inquired as to whether this practice was undertaken in the past. I wanted to know Darbush's view. Otherwise, I had already been informed by old smelters that it took some days to prepare the clay, and that other materials, such as straw of teff, clay sherds, and sometimes slags, were added to temper it. Darbush told me that he had learned a lot about tuyere making from his father and that his father used to add some of these other materials to temper the clay. However, Darbush usually prepared the clay on the same day it was extracted. He said that his father used tuyeres made this way for over a year. Darbush added that one could wait for the tuyeres to dry on their own without having to expose them to direct sunlight or fire.
Each of the tuyeres was later pierced with a shaped wooden stick to make a tube. The tuyeres were about 70 cm tall; on the hudduu, or bottom end, they were about 34 cm wide and they narrowed in width down to the afaan, or mouth end. The clay tuyeres were left under the shed of Darbush's house for gradual drying for some time. After two days, Darbush brought the clay tuyeres near the fire at his forging place. Before he put them near the fire, he rubbed them first with dry soil and cold ash and then with hot ash. He then put them a little distance from the forging hearth. Afterwards, he began to fire them on his forging fire and then in a smelting pit furnace prepared under the same hut. Darbush also prepared the kololii tuyeres from iron sheet in his forging station.
One day before the smelting day, the participants discovered that two out of four of the clay tuyeres were cracked and non-functional. On the same day, one of Darbush's assistants stepped accidentally on one of the two remaining tuyeres and broke it beyond repair. We were all disappointed by these developments, since it was impossible to make another one under the circumstances. I asked Darbush whether we should carry out the smelting project using a single tuyere and bag. He told me that it might take us over a month to make another clay tuyere due to the heavy summer weather that was fast aprroaching. It was then decided to carry out the smelting demonstration using just one madabii tuyere.Bellows (qalqala buufaa) Making
In the Walagee area, both smelters and forgers used bag bellows. Making the bag bellows, called qalqala buufaa, is a process known as makkaluu. The bag bellows are made of goat skin. Each forger has an extra bag prepared or tanned for making bellows. In this case, Darbush did not need to prepare a new bag out of goat skin. He decided to use the bags he had reserved for forging. Therefore, there was no fresh goat skin prepared for the smelting. He made (makkaluu) two bags for this smelting, since the bags he was using for forging were old and leaking air. By using two stick slats, he sewed the mouth (afaan qalqalaa) with a cotton thread for opening and closing the diaphragm. He left one aperture at the bottom through which the buudaa tuyere would protrude. The buudaa tuyere is inserted through the afaan qalqalaa so that the thicker part is left inside the bellows, closing the gaps tightly. Darbush cut the horn to an estimated length and inserted it into the new bellows. The two are permanently attached to each other.Furnace Making (Boolla buufaa)
It is the responsibility of a master smelter to prepare the furnace, the tuyeres, and bellows. Obbo Darbush and his assistants, guided by Obbo Nagash, prepared the furnace near the forging hearth. A new hut for smelting was not constructed, because it was a rainy season and it was not possible to find grass for building the thatched roof for a new hut. In addition to the story collected from old participants, one of the participants of old smelting practices helped in the preparation of the furnace. The furnace was prepared in the forging hut of Obbo Darbush. It was dug into the ground in an inclined position of about one meter deep.
Once the soil was cleaned, the master put in stalks of grass and wood and set fire to it. Then the fire was used for firing the clay tuyeres. Firing the inside was also meant to dry and harden it so that loose soil from the furnace wall would not affect the smelting. There was no additional treatment made on the furnace.
The furnace was prepared only one day before the smelting. According to Obbo Nagaash, the furnace should have been lined with clay soil. Nevertheless, Darbush did not seem to listen to Nagaash or the advice received from other participants particularly with regard to treatment of the furnace. Darbush's assistants sided with him in these arguments, because he had already proved himself a master forger like his father. He is known to make bush knives that are regarded as the best in the district.Charcoal Making
At present, charcoal is prepared in two different ways. The old way is to cut live trees and burn them in a pit that is covered with leaves and soil after quenching the burn pile with water. This mechanism is particularly used for when charcoal is needed for smelting and household use. This system is no more in use these days. Though charcoal is in high demand in the town, there is no one working on charcoal production in Walagee, because it is considered to be "dirty work." Therefore, it is a second type of charcoal production that is evident, particularly in forging areas. For forging purpose, charcoal is prepared in an open space on the ground in heaps where a fire is set and after the material is half burned it is quenched with water.
The only similarity between the traditional system of charcoal preparation in a pit with the surface preparation method is that after burning the material for a certain time, the workers quench it with water. Individuals who bring their tools to the forging place for repairing their tools either bring bundles of charcoal from their homes or prepare charcoal near the forging site, as wood is available in nearby farming fields. According to them, the difference between preparing in a pit and open space is that charcoal prepared in the pit burns gradually and gives heat for a long time, while charcoal prepared on the surface is used for shorter time periods.
However, the charcoal maker Obbo Rabbirraa used the traditional mechanism of preparing it since this charcoal was meant for smelting, not forging. As in past practices, the charcoal for this reconstruction of smelting methods was prepared from three selected tree species. These plants are in Afaan Oromo called Hambaltaa or Biiroo (Entada abyssinica) of the Mimosoideae family, Hudduu Fardaa (Trena orientalis) of the Ulmaceae family, and Baddeessaa (Syzgium guineense) of the Myrtaceae family.
Old smelters classified the tree species under two types. For them, Hambaltaa and Hudduu Fardaa produce a saliva-like (gorora) substance when burned and their burning helps to consolidate bloom fragments. For forging the bloom (which is still used by the forgers), they told us that they used the Baddeessa tree because that fuel tends to melt the bloom and any other scrap iron. Obbo Rabbirraa prepared the charcoal according to the information given to us by participants of old smelting practices of the Malkee group. He went down the stream of Laga Suphee in the farm field of Obbo Darbush, where he cut Hambaltaa and Hudduu Fardaa trees into regular-sized pieces. These trees were half dried since they were cut down previously as part of slash and burn farming. The master and his assistants participated in the charcoal making as part of offering labor to Rabbirraa. Then a pit was prepared where the sliced wood was heaped and fire was set. After it was half burned, water was fetched from the stream and poured onto the material. Then they collected leaves and covered all over the half-burned wood. The last procedure was to bury the material with soil. They inspected it closely to see whether there was a hole to allow smoke to escape. After they were sure it was all set, they left the material to gradually burn and cool down. For this first smelting, 60 kilograms of charcoal was used to smelt 12 kilograms of ore.First Round of Smelting
On the day of smelting (July 14, 2005) the preparation and arrangement of the bellows and tuyeres, a process called camaduu, was begun at 10:20 in the morning. In this case, at 10:50 a fire was lit in the pit. To start it they used fire from the hearth and charcoal. More and more charcoal was added while the blowing was taking place. Once the person who measures and adds charcoal (called the leeccaqtuu) was satisfied with the procedure, the participants began to add the ore. This role was given to Obbo Nagaash Fayyisaa because of his previous experience. Simultaneously, the master sacrificed a cock, praying for the help from the spirits (ayyaana) of his ancestors and the village. Obbo Darbush, who was now taking the place of master smelter, supervised each activity. Smelting activity, i.e. the blowing of the bellows, was carried out by using only one long, clay tuyere and two bag bellows.
The arrangement of the madabii tuyere did not seem proper, and Obbo Darbush instructed the blowers to stop pumping from time to time so he could inspect the progress. After three to four hours of pumping of the bellows, the blowers began to complain that they could not push air through the tuyere. Obbo Darbush stopped the blowing and pulled the madabii tuyere back a little, which Obbo Nagaash said was wrong. Instead, said Nagaash, the master would do better to use a long stick to open up the tip of the tuyere, which he believed was clogged with slag, and he insisted that the bellows chargers should work strongly and without interruption. A heated dialogue was held between the smelters. The new smelter boasted that he would know better than would the old, and he continued the process for about five hours.
At 3:11 that afternoon, the master told the leeccaqtuu to add his final charcoal and ore. At 4:00, the leeccaqtuu added more charcoal, and blowing continued up to 4:26, when the master announced that the smelting was over. When I asked the leeccaqtuu what he felt about the outcome, he said that he doubted whether we would see tangible results of the smelting. The smelted material was then left for cooling until the next day. The next morning every one of us accompanied the master to see the result of the smelting. However, it was found to be unsuccessful and resulted in material that was not very well consolidated.
Obbo Darbush, like any of us, was disappointed by the result of the work. Every participant offered one or another reason for the outcome. The smelters said that the reasons were mainly two: that due to wet weather the madabii tuyeres could not dry properly, and this resulted in three of them breaking and only one in use for the the smelting. Secondly, the blowing was not strong enough to attain the necessary heat. I later found out that the blowers may have conspired and did not fully cooperate with the master, claiming that he did not pay them well. In addition, some blowers blamed the poor results on the quality of the ore, claiming that Obbo Moosisaa might have cheated on them by giving them ore left over from past mining. The master then said that if he were given a second chance he would organize a better smelting activity. The second round of smelting was planned to take place after the rainy summer season was over, which meant after mid-September.Smelting Reconstruction: Second Round
I made a second trip to Walagee in the month of September 2005 to observe another round of smelting reconstruction efforts. Preparations for conducting a second round of smelting began on September 16. Smelting was planned to take place as soon as the clay tuyeres were ready.
Obbo Darbush organized this voluntary demonstration of traditional smelting practices in accordance with his promise to carry out another attempt after the first smelt proved unsuccessful. In this second round of smelting, a number of modifications were made. When we again talked to the participants of the old smelting, they insisted that the smelters should take some additional measures in preparing for the smelt. These improvements in the second round included treatment of the ore, madabii making, and changes in the depth and internal treatment of the furnace.
According to Obbo Moosisaa, the ore should have been washed until it becames shinning black. As I noted earlier, in the first round the cleaning or washing of the ore was not sufficiently thorough to make it charcoal black. Therefore, in the second round the ore was well prepared in that washing took place two times in cleaner water than during the first round in July, when it was washed only once in the unclear water of the flooding river.
In this second round modifications were also made to the preparations of the madabii tuyeres. I did not observe those preparations first-hand, because I had to travel to a nearby town at the time. However, Darbush described these preparations to me later. As occurred in the first round of smelting reconstruction, the clay was obtained from the area of the Clay River, Laga Suphee. The pounding of the clay and efforts to keep the clay fresh as it was transported from the river were undertaken in a manner very similar to the methods used in the first round of madabii making. However, during this second round the smelter added some additional materials to the clay soil. For strengthening the clay, he added pottery fragments and straw of teff. In addition, this time the length of the tuyere was increased to an average of 1.07 meters.
Then, under better weather conditions than in the earlier attempt, the tuyeres were left under the shed of the house to gradually dry for 13 days. After that, the tuyeres were brought near the fire, because even after this passage of time the madabii tuyeres were not fully dry due to the humidity of the extended rainy season. Obbo Darbush began to fire them two days before the day of smelting. In this second round, only one tuyere was cracked, but not beyond repair.
Some changes were also made on the preparation of the pit furnace. The second round smelting was carried out in the furnace used for the first round smelting, but with some modifications. In the first round smelting, the depth of the furnace was about 80 cm, to allow 70 cm madabii tuyeres. For the second round smelting, the depth was increased to about 120 cm so that it would allow the average length of 107 cm madabii tuyeres. This modification on the pit furnace, in terms of depth in particular, was made to follow the traditional line as conveyed to us by participants in the old smelting practices. The other modification made on the pit furnace involved lining the inside walls. In this second round, the master lined the furnace with clay soil. However, three days before the day of smelting heavy rain mixed with ice fell and partly destroyed the lining. It was not possible to reline it since drying of the wall would take longer time than the next three days. To tackle this problem Obbo Darbush devised a new technique. He inserted the upper part of a broken pot into the bottom of the furnace, so that the bloom would form on it and the cracking of the walls would not affect this formation. Before he inserted the broken pot, however, he fired the tuyeres inside the furnace for two days, which also helped to dry up the furnace walls.
The day of the second round smelting was purposefully made on Tuesday. Tuesday is called guyyaa guutuu, for "full day" or "lucky day." Smelting was begun early in the morning. From about 5:30, Darbush went from house to house to awaken participants. Then at 6:00, every participant was summoned near the smelting hut, godoo bufaa. Then at 6:12, a fire was lit and the bellowing began. At an average of about 25 minutes, the participants added charcoal and ore in alternation and under a continuous and more organized bellowing than the first round. Unlike the first round, in this round of smelting they used two madabii tuyeres and four bag bellows. In this second round of smelting, the other new element was the use of rubber from a car tire for making part of the bellows.
Six blowers were hired for the second round smelting. All blowers belonged to the tumtuu caste. Some of them were already working with the master as assistants in forging activities. Because they complained about the payment Obbo Darbush had paid in the first round, I handled the negotiation of their wages in the second round. Smelting in this round took seven hours to finish, consuming 90 kilograms of charcoal carried in three sacks, to smelt 10 kilograms of ore. This was a little bit different from the first round. In the first round, smelting took five hours, using 60 kilograms of charcoal carried in one sack, to smelt 12 kilograms of ore.
In the second round, Obbo Darbush announced the end of blowing and smelting after 13 intervals of adding ore and charcoal and about an hour of blowing without adding any more ore. By that time, the color of the fire and the sound of blowing had changed; these changes were used as signs for stopping the blowing. On the next morning, Obbo Darbush and his assistant took out what looked like a block of black material. Darbush's older brother, Obbo Bookaa Kumsaa, inspected the material and told us that it was a successful smelt. However, Obbo Darbush was not able to make tools out of the dilalii, because he never learned how to make tools out of the locally smelted iron. Generally, the reconstruction of the smelting practices was accomplished through a trial and error process based on the information conveyed by the old smelters.[Return to table of contents]
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