Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Global interactions: slavery in the Americas

Image: African Burial Ground National Monument.



As interest in the burial ground grew, especially among African Americans, some voices rose in outrage against further excavation and desecration of the graves. The cruelties these individuals suffered in life should not be repeated after death. People argued that the spiritual significance of the site went even deeper than its scientific and historical value. This was hallowed ground.
Hanson, J. and McGowan, G., 1998, Breaking Ground Breaking Silence: the Story of New York's African Burial Ground, New York: Henry Holt, p. 107.

"I cried," Noel Pointer, the jazz musician and singer, said of his first visit to the site. Mr. Pointer, who plans to take part in a 26-hour remembrance vigil at the site, beginning at noon today, added: "You hear all about these archeological and scientific terms and you say to yourself, 'This is very interesting.' But until you get down there and you see what the bodies look like -- you see the skeletons of the children laying in the earth -- then you realize that these are people."
Shipp, E.R., August, 9, 1992, Black Cemetery Yields Wealth of History, New York Times,

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in New York City, and the range of issues it raised about archaeological ethics, authority, and overall purpose, served as an event that ultimately challenged historical archaeologists to reconsider what they were doing and for whom.
Wilkie, L. A. 2009. Interpretive Historical Archaeologies. In International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. Part 2. Edited by Teresita Majewski, David Gaimster. Springer, p. 336.

The excavation and warehousing of human remains remains a contentious issue. Should it be decided by the descendent community (if identifiable) or archaeologists whether the ancestral human remains be excavated or not?

The "ethnic marker" studies often fixated on particular classes of material culture that may be considered diagnostic of particular classes or racialized subjects. Artifacts such as colonoware, blue beads, high percentages of pipes, shortened pipe stems, opium paraphernalia, patent medicine bottles, ginger jars, cowrie shells, and particular types of food remains were often used to indicate the race, ethnicity, or class of households and groups.
Griggs quoted in Brandon, J. B. 2009. A North American Perspective on Race and Class in Historical Archaeology. In the International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. Springer, p. 7.

How does this approach differ from making the determination that an iron from a site was used exclusively by a woman?

This week has been titled "Global Interactions." And the slave trade certainly was an international phenomenon. Many slaves were taken from Ghana. Take a brief tour of the Cape Coast Castle Museum with Andersen Cooper (link below). Then when we visit the museum at the African Burial Ground, let's take notice as to whether the overall exhibition leaves us with a sense of slavery being national or international.

Tour of Cape Coast Castle Museum:


  1. I loved the quote from this blog posting, as well as the possible parallels with the Cape Coast Castle Museum. It is interesting to consider the fact that the African Burial Ground is primarily an American (/African-American) monument, while the evidence of African symbols and patterns are highlighted. We might contrast this with the Coast Castle Musum which (I believe) is in Africa, and whose capitves were African slaves. As the final destinations of those slaves was veried, it is impossible to ascribe another secondary identity (American, Caribbean, etc)to the captives. The focus is then not so much a national identity but with the humanity of those victims and the reality of the horrors of the slave trade.

  2. Global Interactions can be seen not only through the slave trade, but also through the memorialization of people. Modernly, we see increasingly international communication, cooperation, and memorialization in cases of mass death, which can be seen in the United States as applied to slavery. These interactions are especially potent when it comes to understanding not only identity, but agency and dignity. I am writing this several weeks after this post was published and have been thinking about forensic archaeology and Argentina and how archaeology is seen as the creation of narrative or a memory. It was interesting to go to the museum and see archaeology presented in these context to perpetuate the identity of those buried and their ability to act in our society as markers of remembrance, though social, political, and historical realms.