This book provides another contribution to the growing archaeological literature on African-American life outside the southern USA. The editors designate their region “a cultural borderland” bounded by New York City to the north and Philadelphia to the south (p. 1). Of the nine sites examined, four are located in Delaware, two each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and one in New York. The authors collectively address a range of subjects within enslavement and freedom, and examine some of the most important issues of contemporary historical archaeology in North America, including the distribution of colonowares, life in enslavement, tenant-farmer material culture, landscape significance, the linkage between racial assignment and class position, and the challenges of emancipation. The editors explicitly conceive of the book as “part social history, part activism” (p. 3), and intend it as an assault on the historical silences surrounding racism, dominance and oppression against African-Americans.
The authors pursue research along three themes central to African-American archaeology: slavery and material culture (three chapters); housing, community and labour (five chapters); and death and memorialisation (three chapters). In keeping with today's disciplinary realities, academics, commercial archaeologists, historical societies and local descendant communities are all represented.
The chapters focusing on slavery and material culture begin with a study of the Cedar Creek site, a domestic-industrial property dating to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The excavated artefacts add to the body of knowledge about the material culture of enslavement (as do each of the chapters in this section), but the most intriguing aspect of the site is the residents’ involvement with iron-working, a productive process also practised in West Africa. In the second chapter, the author provides an important contribution to the study of colonoware by charting its distribution across the study area. This research presents another tangible refutation of the notion that captive Africans made low-fired, coarse earthenwares only in the American South and the Caribbean. It may be that African captives made colonowares wherever they lived. The final chapter in this section concentrates on the archaeology of the eighteenth-century Rock Hall property in western Long Island, New York. Among the significant finds is a possible West African religious cache composed of straight pins, bent nails, lead shot and pieces of sandstone. The discovery of a tabby fireplace suggests that some of the enslaved probably travelled to New York from Antigua, where tabby construction is common. Tabby is a building material combining lime, sand, ash, oyster shells and water that when dry resembles concrete.
The papers in the second section delve into the nature of daily life in different African-American communities. The sites examined were, in order of chapter, inhabited by a family headed by a former Barbadian captive; occupied by a tenant-farming family associated with a former bondsman who resisted slave catchers in an infamous ‘riot’; an African-American settlement in a region with a large Quaker population; a house in which dwelt a series of tenant farmers; and a free community occupied until the mid 1940s. The authors outline the unique historical circumstances of each site's occupants, with every account explaining the challenges African-Americans confronted during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each author addresses elements of social negotiation by demonstrating the strategies that African-Americans adopted while living in often hostile environments. One author terms the strategy “a practice theory of improvisation”, an approach required by racialised people experiencing “life within networks of repression” (p. 133). This apt term summarises the scope of the entire volume.
The authors of the third section focus attention on commemoration at grave sites. The chapters explore antebellum grave markers; a cemetery associated with an African Methodist Episcopal church; and a cemetery with interred members of the United States Coloured Troops. As is true of the studies preceding it, these chapters recount African-American marginalisation, albeit in these cases, after death.
In the final two chapters, termed ‘Reflections’, two authors familiar with the research topics explore broader issues in the context of the preceding chapters. Christopher Fennell offers a wide-ranging perspective on contemporary African-American archaeology, paying close attention to race and class, the struggle for freedom, the role of religion in daily life and the meaning of material culture. Lu Ann De Cunzo presents a more tightly focused view of African-American life in the study area, revisiting many of the issues explored throughout the book. Both chapters contribute to the depth of the volume.
This is an important collection for at least two reasons. First, it expands the knowledge about African-American daily life. All books published on the subject in archaeology also make this contribution, and each is valuable for this reason alone. But in this particular case, readers are confronted with the reality that African captivity for the purposes of forced labour existed throughout the USA until the middle of the nineteenth century, and that African-Americans still faced significant challenges after emancipation. This book offers additional object lessons to shatter the silence that once surrounded the practice of human bondage in the American North. Equally striking is the authors’ appreciation for the infrangible connection between past and present. The commentators’ overviews carry the discussion well into the twentieth century, and many of the chapters, by involving descendant communities, erase the past/present divide. The decision by some authors to use explicit terms such as “human trafficking” (p. 21), “oppression” (p. 29) and “kidnapping” (p. 90) demonstrate an activist commitment in their writing. Their willingness to make these decisions may indicate that American historical archaeology is developing a less conservative outlook. That the authors of this collection, along with growing numbers of archaeologists, are willing to use their research to illuminate the historical legacies of the USA's most damning social disgrace is a healthy sign for the discipline.