P200 Introduction to Prehistoric Archaeology

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Week 2: Historical Archaeology

We talked about how archaeological data can help fill some of the gaps, and correct some of the biases in historical data. But, of course, archaeologists face their own problems of incomplete data and biases too, related to both behavioral processes and processes of transformation that affect how archeaological remains are preserved.

We looked at a quick example of historical archaeology from the Five Points Site, in New York City. One key weakness in historical data is that it often has alot to say about the rich, important people in the world, and much less to say about the ordinary person. Archaeological data has the potential to be much more democratic, and can provide evidence of the daily lives of nameless people otherwise unknown to historians.

A good example of this is how archaeologists are beginning to improve our understanding of slave life in 18th and 19th century America. We watched part of a video documenting the archaeological research of Leland Ferguson on the Middleburg Plantation.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and I didn't get a chance to continue the video to look at Monticello. But let me draw your attention to one point about Monticello mentioned briefly in the McKee article in your reader.

Archaeologists were initially surprized to find many fragments of porcelain ceramics, such as plates and tea cups, buried inside the remains of slave cabins along Mulberry Row at Monticello. These seemed particularly abundant in the building where Sally Hemings lived (the slave woman whom many think fathered several children with Jefferson).

What could these finds mean about the conditions under which Jefferson's slaves lived? Some think that it means that Jefferson was a particularly kind and generous slave owner.

Jefferson and slavery

  • Can you think of alternative hypotheses that could explain the same patterns?
  • What type of information could archaeologists look for to try to test these alternative hypotheses?

 Here are pictures of some of the artifacts found in excavations of slave quarters at Monticello.

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Last updated: 20 January, 2000
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Copyright Jeanne Sept 2000 : do not cite without permission