Archaeology and African Descendant Communities

In honor of Black History Month, this post is dedicated to the archaeological work and research of African descendants past and present. While the African descendant presence in our field is still low, the research on U.S. and African Diaspora communities is burgeoning with interest. This post will briefly mention some of the archaeological work on African and African American communities currently done in our Department. I will highlight a few aspects about the exciting research going on today. Lastly, I will highlight some resources for learning more about the relationship between archaeology and African Diaspora communities.

In our Department, there are a handful of recent projects that studied aspects of U.S. African American communities or African descendants communities in general. The recent MSU Ph.D. E. W. Duane Quates investigated the role the 1807 Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Act that helped to establish illicit boundaries of early 19th century Spanish west Florida. Current Ph. D. candidate Chris Valvano explores how the historic New Philadelphia community transitioned from a position of southern bondage into one of 19th century northern capitalism. Avid CAP blog readers are well aware of the work of former campus archaeologist Terry Brock but more information can be found here. Briefly, Terry’s work looks at mid-19th century African America community in Maryland and their transition from enslaved to free. Lastly, my work has covered various parts of the Diaspora but I am currently focused on the emergent political and economic landscape of the mighty Kongo Kingdom from the 13th through the 15th century. This Kingdom was not only a strong influence in central west Africa, bur it arguably made up one third of African descendants forced into enslavement during the Trans Atlantic Trade. Our work varies across space and time and focuses on different aspects of African descendant communities. Collectively, we demonstrate that the lives and histories of African people help to illuminate both questions and answers about society, identity, and place in anthropology in general.

The archaeology of African American communities is a pretty popular topic especially as the field of historic archaeology expands into the lives and histories of people frequently left out of American narratives. Very little historic work can be done in the U.S. without encountering issues such as race, gender, and class and we can see this through recent topics in archaeology as a whole. The professional landscape of African American or African Diaspora archaeology is an exciting place that contributes to a deeper more textual understanding of the lives and contributions of African descendant communities throughout the world. While sites can be as specific as the home site of W.E.B. Du Bois (Battle-Baptiste), to burial grounds from Texas to New York, the field has developed from its beginnings at the edges of American plantations Also, as African Diaspora Archaeology continues to develop relationships with other fields such as literature, Black Studies, and critical theory, the interpretations of African descendant heritage too become more nuanced such as the work of Maria Franklin. Thus, the intentionality of African individuals and communities becomes the focus and the field can release its grip on the sometimes stifling debates concerning resistance and agency that plagues so much of the work on enslavement communities.

So, where can you go to find out more about the myriad of relationships between archaeology and African descendant communities worldwide? Start with the Society for Black Archaeologists. The SBA is a recent group of African descendant scholars, community members, and Black people who just like to dig in the dirt. The resources on this site can point you to past and present archaeological work of African descendants both enslaved and free, since the first archaeological investigations on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation at the turn of the 19th century. SBA currently estimates just over 20 African descendants people holding or in pursuit of Ph.D. in the U.S. and you can connect with most of us through the SBA website. You should also go there to learn about the first professionally trained African American archaeologist, John Wesley Gilbert and look at amazing photos of African American WPA workers conducting excavations at a time when women were largely discouraged from archaeological work.

If you are interested in the academic research worldwide, as well as new dissertations, relevant conferences, and a host of other resources in the field, visit African Diaspora Archaeology Network. This website grew into a internationally recognized resource for all aspects of the field, including the newest addition the Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage.

The traditional Africana Studies “role call” would be most appropriate at this phase but in fear of leaving out pioneering sheroes and heroes in the field, I will end this blog with this: a key to understanding contemporary African descendant communities is to understand their individual and collective past. Archaeology is becoming a solid source of information, analysis, and interpretation of that past and when is a better time to learn more than Black History Month! Ashé!


Photo: SBA media archives.


Author: Blair Zaid

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