Wye House: Seven Years of Archaeology

Following these two weeks of blogging by our field school students and staff and before completing our final week of excavations, it is appropriate to refresh everyone of our work at Wye House. Here is a condensed version of our time at Wye House.

Source: Kate Deeley

Excavations of the Middle Building, 2010. Source: Kate Deeley

In 2004, Mrs. R. Carmichael Tilghman offered our project the opportunity to excavate on the property. The request was for us to explore the lives of the enslaved on this plantation, which today bears no visible above-ground signature of its existence. This meant that our work would focus on the area of land known as the “Long Green” where the majority of the enslaved and the overseers lived. In addition to this, Archaeology in Annapolis also approached the nearby community of Unionville, which was established by eighteen individuals once enslaved at Wye House who had returned after fighting in the Union Army. So beyond providing a more complex and diverse narrative of Wye House, the community members were most interested in wanting to understand the daily lives of the enslaved and how they practiced spirituality.

Our research questions became:

  • How did the Lloyds help the slaves (or fail to help them) achieve freedom?
  • What were the spiritual practices of the slaves like?
  • How did the Wye House slaves live on a day-to-day basis?
  • What was family life like at the Long Green?

Excavations began during the summer of 2006. Seven years and sixty-nine test units later, we are beginning comprehend the usage of the Long Green. Three buildings, all used in part as quarters for the enslaved, have been fully excavated. These buildings were frail, required frequent maintenance, and had minimal room for storage. Contrary to many other plantation sites, we have also not found any evidence of gardens or animal pens used by the enslaved. Nonetheless, we have found that the enslaved ate a much wider range of food than the Lloyds would have provided, despite strict prohibitions to hunting, fishing, or gathering of plants. The enslaved were thus independently exploiting the natural environment much more than any historical evidence details.

UMCP Hornbake Library, courtesy of the Tilghman Family

Page from Lloyd Family Cookbooks, c. 1852-1881. Source: UMCP Hornbake Library, courtesy of the Tilghman Family

The availability of this type of evidence leads directly into my dissertation research which employs the study of animal bones – zooarchaeology – to explore how the enslaved procured, prepared, cooked, and disposed of their food. I also use comparative material from a set of 19th century cookbooks compiled by the Lloyds.

Given this, I welcome readers to comment with information about food, family stories, or recipes that they may have. A big part of my research involves going through historic cookbooks or recipes that have been passed down through generations from the 17th century on, primarily in the Chesapeake. And as I argue in my work, it is not only the ingredients in a dish, but the stories behind its origination that provide meaning to why people eat the things that they do. Why is this dish special? Whose recipe is it, and why has it been passed down? What stories are told during the cooking or eating of this dish?

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