The archaeology of transatlantic slavery

Archaeologist Katie Hedley recording a test pit in New River on Nevis

The archaeological record of slave sites consists of physical traces that include, but are not limited to, pottery and glass vessels used in cooking and dining, bones from the animals they ate, buttons and beads from the clothing they wore, and architectural materials from the houses in which they lived. Since there was no rubbish collection, these objects were discarded in areas where people lived and were the inevitable and unintended result of everyday life.

The archaeological record represents peoples’ daily lives in a way that documents cannot because its creation does not depend on the presence of a literate observer. In the case of slavery, that literate observer was most often a slave owner, an overseer, or European traveller. These individuals all had different motivations for recording their inevitably biased observations in writing. With a few famous exceptions, few enslaved individuals left surviving written documentation of their lives.

Research on Nevis is a good example of the importance of archaeological record. While the location of the New River slave village is marked on one early 19th century map, few documents survive that describe how many people lived there, what their names were, how old they were, how they lived or what they ate. However, the enslaved residents at the New River village did leave behind physical traces of their lives, in tobacco pipe fragments, pottery and glass sherds, iron tools, and stone house foundations.