The archaeology of slavery

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Transatlantic slavery: the background

Columbus's landing on the small Caribbean island of San Salvador in 1492 sparked the most dramatic and consequential migration in the history of our species: the settlement of the Americas by populations from Europe and Africa. Europeans came as soldiers, adventurers, merchants, farmers, and indentured servants. The vast majority of Africans came in chains, as labourers enslaved by Europeans. Nevertheless, enslaved Africans and their descendants were critical to the profitability of New World settlement and its ultimate success for Europeans.

Why archaeology?

Many questions remain regarding the lives of enslaved Africans. What were the lives of enslaved Africans like? How did they survive and find ways to sustain families, or in too many cases, fail to? How did their survival strategies vary over time with shifts in the Atlantic economy? How did their strategies vary with the different labour demands of crops and with the different natural environments? What strategies did enslaved individuals use to resist? And to what extent did those strategies include cultural knowledge people brought with them from Africa? Or did they create means of adapting to new conditions in the New World?

Traditionally, historians have tried to answer questions like these using documents, with varying degrees of success. While documents provide some basic information about the lives of slaves, they rarely provide insight into the questions such as those posed above because few were written from the perspective of slaves. However archaeology provides the opportunity for a more holistic understanding of these peoples’ lives. The archaeological record consists of the physical traces left in and on the ground by past peoples . This material record provides insight into the daily lives of groups and individuals who were not included in or in some cases purposefully excluded from the written record.

Archaeologists have been excavating slave sites in the southern United States and Caribbean since the early 1970s because they want to give voice to enslaved people, and their families, by recovering and interpreting the material items they left behind.

Further background information

Explore the project

You can also explore the archaeological data on the DAACS website|.