Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie, July 24, 2015
Today is the Day of Archaeology. The goal of this day is to provide insight into the daily lives of archaeologists around the world, including professors, contract professionals, volunteers, students and more. It demonstrates the wide range of work that we do, from excavating to lab work, public outreach to research. Being an archaeologist, to me, has always meant being a jack of all trades. I spent the first half of the summer excavating on Michigan State University’s campus doing historical and public archaeology, and I’m spending the second half of my summer doing research to complete my early Medieval, mortuary and digital archaeology dissertation.
Usually for the Day of Archaeology, I share what I’m doing that day- a day in the life of a mortuary archaeologist. Today, I’m writing… a lot. My goal for today is to write a rough draft of my history of early Medieval archaeology chapter of my dissertation. This chapter is going to review how the study of this period of history developed from the first excavations in the 17th century, and how we are studying this period today. To take a break from writing, I figured that today I would share one of the reasons why I think studying mortuary archaeology is so important: revealing the hidden stories and voices of the past.
When we learn about history in school, we primarily memorize major dates around wars, revolutions, and leaders, often the history of rich white men. Archaeology allows us to glimpse into the lives of the average person- what they experienced, and how they survived and died. By looking at the material remains of behavior, we don’t have the bias that textual history does- we see not just big men, we see everyone. Because archaeology looks at behavior, we can reveal hidden stories and lost voices. One of the major lost stories is those of enslaved people in the United States.
Quotation from the New York African Burial Ground, by The All-Nite Images on Flickr
During the late 17th through 18th centuries, more than 400 African were buried in Lower Manhattan at a site now known as the New York African Burial Ground. It is the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent, containing the remains of both free and enslaved peoples. The cemetery is important for many reasons, but most importantly, it highlights a forgotten history of African slaves in colonial and federal New York City. Scholars and African-American civic activists joined to publicize the importance of the site and lobby for its preservation. In 1993 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 2006, it became a National Monument.
In 2011, the remains of 419 individuals from the African Burial Ground were examined in order to better understand life for Africans in New York City during the colonial period (See Barrett and Blakey 2011, Ch. 8). The goal wasn’t just a biological study, but a study of their life history- how they experienced life and how this changed over their lifetime. This sample of individuals has a unique history that hasn’t been as explored due to their subjugation. While no lives are static, the transatlantic experiences of enslaved Africans, who were transported from Africa to various points in the Americas, and forced to live and work in a foreign and arduous environment, is an important element in interpreting the lives of those buried within New York African Burial Ground. Many of the individuals within this population were not enslaved until later in their life and, therefore, had to adapt to new social, political, and cultural constraints.
You can read more about the New York African Burial Ground at the National Park Service website, where the archaeology reports are freely available: http://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/archaeology-reports.htm