AiA and African American History

This post is written by undergraduate volunteer Justin Uehlein:

This time of the year the nation celebrates its birth, as well as the freedom that we all associate with it. Typically it is not acknowledged that even though the nation had won its freedom from England, many living within the nations borders did not win their freedom. Slavery was active within the nation, and would remain so in Maryland until 1864 when article 24 of the new Maryland state constitution outlawed it. Due to the nature of slavery, and the attitudes towards African Americans post-emancipation, history for those disenfranchised individuals is, in many cases, absent. Due to that absence historic archaeology can help provide a better understanding of African American history through documental interpretation combined with excavation. Archaeology in Annapolis has been “digging up” African American History both in Annapolis’s urban district as well as at the Wye house plantation Talbot county, Maryland.

The AiA field program has been digging at the Wye house plantation for 7 years with a focus on uncovering African American history on the plantation. In previous years excavations have primarily yielded artifacts related to farming, however this years excavations are uncovering artifacts such as ceramics, and glass ware, which are more indicative of living spaces. While the artifacts are different from in the past, there presence is not a surprise. This years excavations were meant to uncover former slave quarters and indeed, that seems to be what has been found. As a previous blog entry explains, one of the graduate students, Benjamin Skulnik, used LiDAR along with GIS and documentation to determine the existence and location of several former slave quarters. After Benjamin determined the location the AiA staff went out to the Wye house plantation in early march to dig site tests pits (STPs) which are quickly dug one foot by one foot units that are done to test where full five foot by five foot units should be placed. The AiA team’s STPs revealed what was a possible building location on the eastern side of a meadow and a row of trees as well another possible location on the western side of the meadow and trees. Using information collected from the STPs the AiA team decided to place several units on the western side and a couple units of the eastern side of the meadow and trees. On both the eastern and western side evidence of structures as well as living materials have become present. What is very interesting about these artifacts is there similarity to some of the materials found in Annapolis.

In Annapolis, Maryland excavations at the Holiday house and Pinkney house provided a quantity of artifacts. The Holiday house has been owned by the descendants of the Holiday family since its purchase in the 1850’s and was owned by an affluent African American family. What is interesting here is the similarity in artifact types between the slave quarters being excavated at the Wye house plantation and the Holiday house. It has been posited that the Holiday family practiced a form of passive resistance, and the similarity in artifact types may point to the Wye house slaves having practiced a similar form of resistance. The findings thus far have been intriguing and will inevitably add to the understanding of the history of the Wye house. With only a few days left to excavate a feeling of wonder is in the air, anything could be found, and everything that is found adds to the understanding. We will see what else archaeology has to offer.

  1. Virginia Burton

    This whole blog is absolutely fascinating! I’m so glad that the Washington Post had the article about you that led me here.

    I am confused by the last paragraph, however. What artifacts have you uncovered that show passive resistance? I don’t doubt that they practiced it, I just can’t imagine what artifacts would show that.

  2. Virginia – typically, when we talk about passive resistance in a collection of artifacts found archaeologically, we can’t pin-point one specific artifact and say “this is an example of passive resistance”. What is more common is to take a group of artifacts and look at how it conforms to or diverges from what would have been promoted as the social norm. The social norm can be presented through legal statues, in which case resistance is easy to see – its things that go against the law. For example, if we know that slaves were not allowed to hunt animals on plantation property and we find archaeologically animal bones that came from hunted animals (non-domesticated animals), we can say that the slaves were practicing a form of resistance through their hunting activities.

    Norms can also be presented through social etiquette books, and in newspapers, where it is presented as an ideal way to live your life. Resistance in this case would be seen in groups of artifacts that diverge from this social ideal. For example, if Victorian ideals dictate that dinner tables be set with matching dishes, and we find mis-matched sets of dishes archaeologically, then it is possible that the dishes represent a conscious choice by the person who owned them not to conform to, or to resist, the Victorian ideal.

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