Filming Archaeology at Wye House

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

Last summer was the last time Archaeology in Annapolis will likely excavate at Wye House. After a decade of our collective involvement and after five years of being out there myself, it’s an odd feeling to say goodbye to this place. Assemble Studio in Easton, Maryland, just outside of Wye House, finished two beautiful videos this week that summarize the archaeological work we’ve done there. One is a short, five minute “trailer,” and the other is the full, eleven minute version (see below). Along with vivid shots of the plantation’s landscape, historical photographs, and illustrations, the videos showcase Ben Skolnik, Dr. Leone, and I discussing the intellectual weight of our investigations. The final products took the combined efforts of a team of filmmakers, editors, archaeological staff, and field school students. Even before the day of filming, years of thought and work went into those eleven minutes.

I acted as a consultant to Eric Gravely and Patrick Rogan, who are part of the Assemble team, and who came out to Wye House last summer during our field school to film the footage you see in the videos. We worked with Mr. Rogan two years ago when we curated the Joint Heritage at Wye House exhibit at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. He designed the exhibit space to effectively tell the story of the plantation and our research. When we neared the end of that process, he and I discussed the possibility of launching an online exhibit of Joint Heritage, including professionally-produced videos and interactive educational tools. Although we don’t have the funding to create the full website yet, we didn’t want to waste our last opportunity to create the videos. For months leading up to the summer, Mr. Rogan and I considered the talking points of the exhibit and how to translate that to video. What are our main messages? How do we tie in a story of the archaeological process, the global Atlantic Slave Trade in general, and Wye House specifically together?

I use wild hand gestures to explain stratigraphic layering. Source: Assemble Studio.

I use wild hand gestures to explain stratigraphic layering. Source: Assemble Studio.

We were in our last week of excavations when the film crew came out, and it was difficult to juggle the need to complete the dig, instruct the students, and provide enough interview footage for the editors to use. Added to that were concerns of diminishing camera batteries, quickly vanishing sunlight, the usual noises of an operational farm, and the oppressive Maryland heat. I know it tried our students’ patience to be hushed or moved around while they tried to carry out their tasks and the film crew tried to carry out theirs. We were dirty, sweaty, and tired, and you can see all of that on film. That also makes it a wonderfully accurate depiction of archaeology. There was no Hollywood makeup and lighting here.

When the film crew left that day, they had around four hours of “string-out.” They sent me that footage, and I watched every minute of it. I wrote down the segments that I thought best demonstrated our talking points, and I wrote down segments we absolutely could not use, such as one of use misspeaking or saying something inaccurate in the interviews. Tired, hot archaeologists will make mistakes. From there, the editors took my notes and pieced together the content of the two videos. They had to make decisions about how best to build this narrative using our words and the visual representations of the plantation.

We talked multiple times about what illustrations to use throughout. Working with an inherently visual medium, the editors needed to find era-appropriate images that would reinforce the points that Ben, Dr. Leone, and I were making, particularly about enslaved life on the plantation. For me, this was the most difficult part, since that meant that we, in the present, had to make decisions about what enslaved people at Wye House would have looked like and worn or how they lived and worshiped. The images that we chose will then influence the ideas in the viewer’s mind of what this past looked like, and we have to be careful about what those images portray. As archaeologists, we can never completely accurately recreate past lives, so it is important to be aware of the influence our decisions have.

The products, though complete in their own right, are hopefully just a step in the larger project of an online Wye House exhibit. I cannot thank the Assemble team enough for their incredible expertise, patience, and passion for creating educational content. See the full video on YouTube:

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