Understanding Slavery and African American History through Archaeology: The Challenges and Rewards

In town, black and white lived in close proximity to one another.

In town, black and white lived in close proximity to one another.

Archaeology plays a role in many research areas at Colonial Williamsburg, but it is an especially important component in our interpretation of slavery and African American history. Through its focus on the tangible remains of a people whose past is largely underrepresented in documents, archaeology is opening a wider window for us to examine the intricacies of slave life and culture.  As this knowledge expands, we are particularly interested in knowing more about the personal lives of slaves: how they lived, what they ate and wore, and how they managed their environment.

Roughly half of Williamsburg’s population was enslaved on the eve of the American Revolution. That means that archaeologists should not have to look far to find “slave sites.” Most of Williamsburg’s half-acre lots served as home to African Americans during the colonial period. Excavations in and around houses, public buildings, outbuildings, wells, and gardens all yield archaeological evidence that holds potential for studying slave life.

That said, archaeologists find Williamsburg’s Historic Area an extremely challenging place to study the lives of African Americans.  On crowded urban lots within the 18th– century town, blacks and whites lived in close proximity to one another, sharing space and often materials. The enslaved generally lived where they worked:  in kitchens, laundries, and in sections of stables.  Household trash generated on these congested lots was generally disposed in a single, “unsegregated” location, leaving archaeologists with few ways to distinguish whose trash it was. In consequence, it has been exceedingly difficult for archaeologists to identify specific artifact assemblages that can be assigned to Williamsburg’s enslaved residents.

One approach has been to expand our study area to include Williamsburg’s periphery. Not only does this provide a broader picture of Williamsburg’s African American population, it also allows archaeologists to consider sites inhabited by free blacks.  Another advantage of including African American sites on Williamsburg’s periphery is the possibility of comparing materials from these external sites with sites in the heart of the town.  So far, some of the best research data on slave life comes from sites where the enslaved lived on plantations, inhabiting physically separate “quarters.”   Artifacts from these sites are more clearly attributable to the enslaved. Consequently, we know more about slave life from our studies of Williamsburg’s periphery than we do from sites in the Historic Area.  We also know more about enslaved blacks than we do about free blacks.

Using archaeological excavation and analysis in the study of Williamsburg’s African American population is extremely rewarding.  Archaeological information is translated quickly into recreated living and work spaces, and into Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretive programs.  As an area of special focus, “African American archaeology” is, understandably, difficult to encompass within a single blog post. Over upcoming months, we will address some of the research areas in which archaeologists have advanced our understanding of slave life: housing, diet, burial, belief and symbolism, and others.  This tangible evidence has anchored our knowledge, and provokes discussions about slavery and freedom in the past and today.

 Dr. Ywone Edwards-Ingram, Staff Archaeologist, African American and Material Culture Studies.


  1. Ywone Edwards-Ingram says

    Dear Chris:

    Archaeology is a very social practice and we are pleased that you are in our network. We are always seeking to know more about eighteenth-century Williamsburg and to find more ways to strengthen our interpretation of this colonial capital of Virginia. Fortunately, we have the advantage of using approaches and techniques from several academic disciplines and research fields in our work.

    It is the inter-disciplinary nature of archaeology that makes it so useful to the study the lifeways of enslaved and free African Americans who were in the town or nearby, both during and after slavery. With its focus on the mundane and the extraordinary things, behaviors, and events of the past, archaeology definitely provides the means to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of Williamsburg and its diverse population in the colonial era.

    Please continue to nurture your interest in archaeology and in our work.

    Ywone Edwards-Ingram

  2. Christine Hansley says

    Dr. Edwards-Ingram,
    I never gave much thought to the problems you describe above.
    I will look forward to future postings.
    Thanks for spreading knowledge,


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