Archaeologies of Conflicting Ideologies: Frederick Douglass, Democracy, and Combating Racism

The following post comes from a paper I presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference held in Quebec City, Canada this January.  Continue below for the body of the presentation.

Frederick Douglass Statue. Talbot County Courthouse, Easton, Maryland. Photograph by the author.

Archaeologists working at Wye House in Talbot County, Maryland have taken advantage of the historical descriptions provided by 19th century writer, orator, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved there briefly as a child and describes his experiences in all of his autobiographies.  These textual accounts allow the archaeologist to see the plantation landscape and enslaved African American culture through the eyes of one who was enslaved there himself.  Such a perspective is extremely rare in the historical record and have greatly aided archaeological investigations.  Not only have we turned to Douglass for help in locating and describing the structures we excavate on his former plantation, but we have also turned to his writings and his work to help us get inside American slavery, race and racism, colonialism, and ideology.

During the American Civil War, Douglass was a vocal supporter of the US Colored Troops, and actively worked to

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Getting to Wye House

I’ve been working at Wye House for three years now.  One impression that myself and many of our students are left with is its isolation and remoteness.  In the field school van, it takes more than an hour and a half to get to Wye House.  We have to cross the bay, drive down seemingly endless shady country roads, and frequently get stuck in traffic.  Some days, it seems like Wye House is the farthest possible site at which we could be working.

As far away as Wye House might seem on hot summer days, it’s much more connected than one might think.  We’re so used to thinking about distance in terms of lines on a roadmap that we sometimes forget that there are other ways of moving through space and other ways of determining connectedness.







This is a detail from a photograph of Wye House from the early 1920s or 1930s.  If you look closely, you can see the plantation’s wharf as well as the hull of a ship.  In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass writes:

In the river, a short distance from the shore, lying quietly at anchor, with her small boat dancing at her stern, was a large sloop–the Sally Lloyd; called by that name in honor of a favorite daughter of the colonel. The sloop and the mill were wondrous things, full of thoughts and ideas. A child cannot well look at such objects without thinking.

Douglass continues:

“I had the strongest desire to see Baltimore. My cousin Tom, a boy two or three years older than I, had been there, and, though not fluent in speech (he stuttered immoderately), he had inspired me with that desire by his eloquent descriptions of the place. Tom was sometimes cabin-boy on board the sloop “Sally Lloyd” (which Capt. Thomas Auld commanded), and when he came home from Baltimore he was always a sort of hero amongst us, at least till his trip to Baltimore was forgotten. I could never tell him anything, or point out anything that struck me as beautiful or powerful, but that he had seen something in Baltimore far surpassing it. Even the “great house,” with all its pictures within and pillars without, he had the hardihood to say, “was nothing to Baltimore.” He bought a trumpet (worth sixpence) and brought it home; told what he had seen in the windows of the stores; that he had heard shooting-crackers, and seen soldiers; that he had seen a steamboat, and that they were ships in Baltimore that could carry four such sloops as the “Sally Lloyd.””

Is this ship the Sally Lloyd?  In his writings, Douglass makes it clear that this ship (and others like it) is the link between the plantation and the outside world.  Through this ship, a new avenue of transportation and connectedness opens.  While Wye House is seemingly inaccessible by road, it is but a short trip by water to the capital, Annapolis, or the shipping port, Baltimore.  Prior to the construction of the Interstate Highway System (1956), the Bay Bridge (1952), and the invention of the Model T (1908), archaeologists departing from the University of Maryland would almost certainly walk down the road to the port town of Bladensburg, board a ship, and sail down the Anacostia River to the Potomac, across the Chesapeake Bay, and onto the dock at Wye House.  The alternative would involve a LONG walk up and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Returning to the aerial photograph of Wye House suggests another way to get to Wye House: by air.  As remote as Wye House feels, we are frequently greeted by the sounds of powered flight.  Overhead, we’ve seen news helicopters, Coast Guard helicopters, private jets, small turboprop planes, home-made ultra-light aircraft.  We are also treated to daily flights of A-10 Thunderbolts, probably on training flights out of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC.  Nicknamed the Warthog, the A-10 was designed to engage enemy vehicles and tanks with depleted uranium armor-piercing shells.  It flies low, slow, and loud and their commanding presence demands that we look up from our units and realize that we’re still connected to the outside world, even here at Wye House on the Eastern Shore.


GIS Day and Archaeology in Annapolis

Here in our laboratory, several of us use GIS in our work.  In honor of GIS Day, here’s an introduction to some of the things we do.

 Benjamin Skolnik

Detail of Historic Aerial Photograph Showing the Suggested Locations of Structures Seen in a Historic Map of Wye House

In my work on historic plantation landscapes, GIS has been instrumental to mapping and visualizing the past.  Digitizing and georeferencing historic maps and orthorectifying historic photographs has allowed us to identify the locations of buildings and structures which now exist only as archaeological sites.  This process is instrumental to locating new sites of archaeological importance and understanding the relationships between these sites.  At Wye House, we were able to superimpose a historic map and an oblique aerial photograph to suggest where to find a pair of slave quarters, which we have spent the past two field seasons excavating and plan on finishing next summer.  GIS is one of the most important tools we have to help us understand how space and place were created and used in the past.

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“Knowledge Quite Worth Possessing”

Frederick Douglass, from "My Bondage and My Freedom", c. 1855

Frederick Douglass, from “My Bondage and My Freedom”, c. 1855

One of our best glimpses into enslaved life at Wye House and at similar plantations across Maryland and the south comes from Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who was enslaved at Wye House for several years. In each of his autobiographies, he opens with a description of slave life on the plantation.  Our use of Douglass extends not just to his descriptions of the built structures and landscapes that comprise the plantation, but to the physical, personal, and cultural impacts of slavery as well.  Of these, Douglass frequently returns to the impact of slavery on the family, his personal search for knowledge, and the power of knowing one’s past.

Douglass recounts when he was first brought to Wye House by his grandmother Betsy:

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Photography and Archaeology

In addition to trowels and shovels and ¼ inch steel mesh screens, one of the most important pieces of equipment we carry with us into the field is a camera.  Not only do we use our camera to record and document the levels and features we excavate, we can use it as a tool for bringing the past back into the present.

William Paca House before 1890 and in 2012

The William Paca House before 1890 and again in 2012. Image Sources: Historic American Building Survey, E.H. Pickering (bottom left); Benjamin Skolnik (top right)

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Working with Historic Maps

One of the most important strengths of historical archaeology is our ability and willingness to combine anthropology, dirt, and the historical record.  Using documents to aid archaeological research is one of the defining characteristics of the discipline.  These come in many forms–including, but certainly not limited to, deeds, journals, diaries, letters, probate inventories, wills, church records, census records, tax assessments, photographs, paintings, and maps.  Before each dig, we compile  documents and sources which may inform our excavations and interpretations.  The beginning of most archaeological site reports includes a discussion of the context in which we think our site falls and the documents used to provide that information.

We spend a great deal of time thinking about these sources of information and how they relate to what we encounter in the ground.  In an ideal world, what we find in the historical record is helpful and informative and matches what we find in the archaeological record. In practice, the historical record is more often than not full of gaps, contradictions, information not relevant to our site, or information that suggests the feature we encountered shouldn’t exist.  Maps are both among the most helpful and most confusing sources of historical evidence with which we work.  Questions of spatial accuracy aside, the shapes of historic features on maps can be as enigmatic as they are simple.

Sanborn 1891

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1891

Sanborn 1897

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1897

This summer, as in years past, we have turned to historic maps in an attempt to better understand the archaeological record.  At the Schwar’s sites, we have been able to identify a narrow date range for the construction of the present structure by tracing the history of the property and its buildings as they are depicted  on a sequence of historic maps.  While the neighborhood was developed relatively early in Annapolis’ history, the current structure dates to around the turn of the 20th century.  Our research with these maps has revealed the building that stood on the site until the end of the 19th century, when it was replaced with the current one.

Overlay of Sanborn Maps

Overlay of Sanborn Maps

Using the same technique for incorporating geospatial coordinated and overlaying multiple spatial datasets or maps as described previously on this blog (see: Why are we digging where we are at Wye?), we were able to superimpose both the current building with the earlier one.  This gives us an idea of where we can expect to find evidence of this previous building in the ground.

This week, in Unit 25, as we were cleaning the top of a level we believe to be sterile subsoil, we found several features cutting into that layer.  Their position in relation to the current yard don’t make sense as a fencepost.  It is possible these are the remains of posts, either from a fence or a wood frame building.  Could these features be related to the earlier building?

TU 25

Test Unit 25

Looking on a map at these buildings and the ones we will continue to excavate at Wye House in a few weeks,  one can’t help but feel they are looking at an intellectual treasure map, one that if followed, will help us answer the questions we have of people in the past.  These shapes on paper are evocative of buildings we know once existed and hope still exist (at least partially) in the ground.  As we excavate, we constantly compare what we find archaeologically with the enigmatic shapes found on our maps.  Even though they’re little more than labeled rectangles, these shapes give us one of our best glimpses into a vanished landscape.

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Summer 2012 Field School

It’s June again and that means the Archaeology in Annapolis Field School is up and running.  In addition to our students from the University of Maryland, College Park, we also have students from Morgan State, Johns Hopkins, UMBC, and Hood College.  Our students this summer come to us from anthropology, psychology, journalism, government and politics, and art history.  Our students will be learning not just how to dig but about history and heritage of Maryland and the nation.

As with last summer, our students will be blogging about their experience with us in Annapolis and at Wye House.  Not only does this give our students an opportunity to reflect on archaeology, history, and heritage, it also allows them to share these things with a much wider audience.

We encourage you to read what our students have to share this summer, think about what they have to say, comment on their posts, and start a discussion about anything they say that interests you.

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“Here was a field for industry and enterprise, strongly inviting”

The following was presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology 2012 conference in Baltimore, as part of the symposium People Who Lived With Glass Houses: The Archaeology of Gardens and Scientific Agriculture in Early America.

“Here was a field for industry and enterprise, strongly inviting:” using GIS to identify scientific gardening and agriculture on plantation landscapes

Scientific Gardening and Landscapes

Much has been written about gardens and gardening, the explicit and implicit reasons for their existence, and gardens as a product and perpetuator of ideologies. Scientific gardening, the application of experimentation and the scientific method to the botanical world is one such ideology. Such a concept would have found itself right at home among the planter elite in colonial America. Not only did practically all of their homes have adjacent gardens, but the business of these planters and their plantations was large-scale agriculture. Many kept copious notes and records regarding this endeavor and tried to understand best how to run their farms by experimenting, applying the scientific method, and bringing to bear the weight of the principles of the Enlightenment. Gardens can be seen as a kind of laboratory in which planters worked to understand and refine the science of agriculture. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are only the best known of colonial America’s scientific gardeners. While scientific agriculture was an ideology of the elite, the physical labor that made it possible was supplied by enslaved Africans and their descendants. Because the very act of gardening requires physical alterations to the landscape, it is possible to recover this activity archaeologically; however, before we can use archaeology to address scientific gardening, we must first be able to locate these remains on the landscape.

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Why are we digging where we are at Wye?

One of the questions I answered a few weeks ago was “How do you know where to dig?” That was my short answer. Since then, many people have specifically asked us, “How did you know where to find these quarters that you’re excavating this summer?”

This is my long answer.

Brick Row Quarter as depicted on Henry Chandlee Formans Map of Wye House

Brick Row Quarter as depicted on Henry Chandlee Forman's Map of Wye House

Before we can know where to dig, we must first ask ourselves what we are looking for. Central to Archaeology in Annapolis’s ongoing research project at Wye House has been a focus on those enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation. In the seven years we have worked at Wye, we have uncovered many work buildings and excavated portions of the Orangery (Greenhouse). While these buildings tell us what it was like to work on a plantation such as Wye, these locations generally aren’t the homes of the enslaved persons we’re trying to find out about. While we did excavate portions of a quarter attached to the Greenhouse, this quarter could have only housed a small fraction of the approximately 150 enslaved persons who lived at Wye. Therefore, part of our research design is to find the quarters where the rest of these people would have lived, cooked, gardened, relaxed, and slept.

2 Story Quarter as depicted on Henry Chandlee Formans map of Wye House

2 Story Quarter as depicted on Henry Chandlee Forman's map of Wye House

This summer at Wye House, we have integrated several sources of data in order to figure out where to dig for these quarters. These include historic aerial photographs, a tracing of a now-lost historic map, modern aerial and satellite imagery, aerial LiDAR data (LiDAR is a mapping technique which uses pulses of light to create a highly accurate topographic map), and descriptions of the plantation by Frederick Douglass from his autobiographies. Individually, each of these sources offers tantalizing clues as to the locations of the structures; however, none offer enough detail on their own to show us where these quarters are located.  Once we combine these separate data sources in innovative ways, we can generate new spatial knowledge which has helped guide us to these quarters. Integral to this process is the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

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