African Diaspora Archaeology

The past few years, and especially 2020, saw the reemergence of massive racial equality movements (i.e., Black Lives Matters).  The last time this type of movement was of such large scale and presence was in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

Map showing how worldwide African diaspora is because of the vast spread of the slave trade.

Not only did this movement help to move racial equality forward, but it also allowed for the rapid development of African diaspora archaeology.  One of the first African diaspora excavations was at the Kingsley Plantation in Florida conducted by Dr. Charles Fairbanks.  While his methods were not of the New Archaeology style that was emerging during this time, he was responding to the desires of the African American population to be included in the archaeological and historical record.  African diaspora is the study of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and post-emancipation society.  Like most archaeological investigations, it uses an interdisciplinary approach encompassing archaeology, anthropology, architectural history, landscape studies and more.  One of the most important aspects of African diaspora that is too often forgotten is the interpretations, oral histories, and information that can be gained from working with the descendant communities.

African diaspora is heavily rooted in politics.  The capture, treatment, and injustices suffered by the subjects of this archaeological discipline were imposed by a white supremacist political ideology.  Fairbanks’ excavation was conducted without a lens of politics (at least for the most part) because he tried to simply state the facts and provide science-based interpretations.  However, because the racism and extreme ideologies exist today, it is important to view archaeological research with some degree of political slant.  This will help guide interpretations and presentation of data in order to prevent extremist interpretations and combat negative stereotype perpetuations.  If only the data were given to a group of people, each one would have a different interpretation, some good, some bad, and some just plain nutty.

By nature, archaeologists bring the past into the present.  We rediscover forgotten memories of the past, such as the presence of slavery in northern area like Long Island, the lives of the enslaves populations,

Ruins of the slave houses at Kingsley Plantation

and the struggled of post-emancipation former slaves.  Our work can also help to explain the present through the past.  Christopher Matthews brought up an excellent point in his 2008 article in the African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter.  He pointed out that while many homesteads and structures that were occupied by whites in the past are still be occupied and used today, but the structures and communities from African American past population are no longer visible, let alone being used (Matthews 2008: 3).  If the struggles of these people in the past are hard to find, how can their current struggles be made visible? History is an important part of reform and activism.  We can map the ideologies that formed racism and how that people are all the same.  By involving descendant communities in the interpretation of their own history, we give them a voice they might never have had and the authority to take claim of their past.

 

Preventing African diaspora from being seen can only hard activism, treatment of descendant communities, and perpetuate false and inaccurate history.  It is still unclear how the current political climate will impact archaeology as a whole and African diaspora archaeology.  I hope it will bring more light to these excavations and provide more incentive to include the descendant communities.  Only time will tell.

 

Matthews, Cristopher, N.

2008   Archaeology, Obama, and the Long Civil Rights Movement. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 11(4): Article 3, 1-8.

https://scholarworks.umass.edu/adan/

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