The following is a modified version of the talk that I co-wrote with Benjamin Skolnik and presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference earlier this month:
As historical archaeologists, we frequently claim that our work “gives voice to the voiceless.” However, our work of “giving voice” runs into the issue that the most famous voice from our site at Wye House comes from Frederick Douglass, who shares his experiences of being enslaved there as a boy. While we write our dissertations, we attempt to articulate our relationships with Douglass as a historical figure, an author, a literary character, in popular culture, and as a guide for our archaeological work. We ask, ‘How can archaeologists use the experiences of historical figures who spoke for themselves to better tell the stories of those who could not?’
The Lloyd family and their direct descendants have owned the Wye House plantation for 11 generations. One of early Maryland’s most prominent families, the Lloyds left researchers a wealth of information that spans almost all of Maryland’s history. This site consists of many, well-documented standing structures, most relating to the 18th-19th century white owning family. It is a National Historic Landmark and has a rich and thorough collection of primary documents. The Maryland State Archives have 77 boxes of digitized reels, papers, documents, and materials donated from the Lloyd Family. Since the 1960s, the discipline of historical archaeology has turned research from solely these documents and buildings to excavate in and around the homes and workspaces of the enslaved people. Archaeology in Annapolis’s excavations at Wye have been no different as we began excavating an area described by Douglass as the Long Green in 2005.
As a witness, Douglass provides several important functions for us. His writings describe an area of the plantation generally neglected by the Lloyds’ records, visitors to the plantation, and other researchers prior to Archaeology in Annapolis. He defines the boundaries of the Long Green, a term that, to the best of our knowledge, we use because of him. He describes several buildings on the Long Green. Many are gone now and many the enslaved population on the plantation occupied. We also turn to Douglass to help us answer questions concerning material culture at Wye House. As we pulled up oyster shells from around domestic areas, we thought of Douglass writing about the people he saw using oyster shells as spoons. When we interpreted a buried cache in the doorway of a slave quarter that opens immediately onto the Lloyd family cemetery, we recalled the description that Douglass gives of the cemetery. He writes “Strange sights had been seen there by some of the older slaves. Shrouded ghosts, riding on great black horses, had been seen to enter.” This allowed us to understand the absolute necessity for the cache or spirit bundle to separate the spaces of the living and the dead.
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