Plenary: Investigating slavery

Tempest Anderson Hall: 5.30-7.30, followed by a wine reception in the adjacent Yorkshire Museum, all within Museum gardens

Sponsored by ANTIQUITY

Douglas Armstrong, Jim  Walvin  and Zoe Crossland


On the Panel:  Martin Carver (Chair), Paul Lane, Laurajane Smith


In this anniversary year we decided to aim the TAG Plenary at theorizing the archaeological investigation of freedom and slavery.  How do you detect coercion in a community? At what social levels did it operate? 


No human being is entirely free. But we suspect that in the past ‘freedom’ in the modern sense was rare indeed. Large groups of people gave their lives, “willingly” it seems, to the service of others and often to the service of wholly imaginary beings.  It seems possible that from the Neolithic onwards the great majority of people were forced to surrender their individual freedom in childhood and never regain it.  The tragedies of exploitation seen in the last two centuries are only the latest manifestation of an endemic human practice.


The modern theoretical concepts of agency and personhood depend on agency and personhood being detectable in numerous archaeological areas from making stone axes, to furnishing graves to digging rubbish pits. But this assumes a free will and individual liberty that may never have been. Are freedom and slavery actually definable by archaeology?


Our three plenary speakers will speak for around 20 mins each (see below for speakers and topics), panellists will respond and we hope there will plenty of intervention from the floor




Doug Armstrong is Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor, and Maxwell Professor of Teaching Excellence at the University of Syracuse, USA. He is an anthropological archaeologist specializing in historical archaeology, Diaspora studies, World Heritage site management and public policy archaeology.  His scholarship revolves around work in the Caribbean on Diaspora related topics and in New York on public policy and “Freedom Trail” topics. Over the past two decades he has directed a variety of projects focusing on cultural transformation and the emergence of African Caribbean communities in plantation and “free village” settings.  His analysis of the emergence of a free-black community on St. John (formerly Danish West Indies) was published in a book Creole Transformation from Slavery to Freedom:  Historical Archaeology of the East End Community, St. John, Virgin Islands (University Press of Florida 2003). He recently completed the analysis of an excavation of Cinnamon Bay plantation.  The study explores a small beachhead cotton/provisioning/maritime estate that was settled prior to formal colonization of St. John and burned during the St. John rebellion of 1733.  His most recent project on St. John is a whole island historic site GIS survey.


He says: At TAG I would like to address the issue of "Degrees of Freedom:  Life, Liberty, Property, and Happiness.  I will briefly explore definitions of freedom and liberty and how "degrees of freedom" are expressed in archaeological and historical contexts in the Caribbean.  In particular I will examine settings in which persons of African descent in the Virgin Islands gained access to ownership of land and other property versus settings for whom the freedoms of emancipation are limited by conditions of wage labour and rented properties. 



Jim Walvin is Professor of History at the University of York and a historian of slavery of world wide renown. He has two main research interests; modern British social history, and the history of black slavery (especially the Caribbean). He is the author or editor of numerous books in those fields and is co-editor of the journal Slavery and Abolition. Currently Professor Walvin is working on various aspects of the African diaspora. He is especially interested in the impact of Atlantic slavery on the development of modern Britain (post-1660). The history of Atlantic slavery has been the centre of an expansive and innovative historiography in the past generation. Although the core of that history is located in West Africa and the Americas, it has fundamental implications for the way Britain developed. After all, the British transhipped more Africans across the Atlantic than any other nation in the 18th century. And the economic well-being which the British acquired from their slave trading and slave colonies, was instrumental in laying the foundations of a more broadly-base British prosperity. His recent books include Making the Black Atlantic (London, 2000), Britain's Slave Empire (Stroud, 2000), The Trader, The Owner, The Slave (Cape, 2007) and A Short History of Slavery ( Penguin, 2007).


He says:  Atlantic slavery scattered material artefacts clean round the rim of the Atlantic settlements. From the forts of Africa, to the wrecks of slave ships, through to the material goods deposited on plantations, the archaeology of African slavery is rich and inescapable. Oddly, historians of slavery have largely ignored it. There have been some exceptions - notably the most eminent slave historian of his generation, Barry Higman. At TAG I will try to describe the importance of the material culture of Atlantic slavery and suggest ways it might enable us to reassess slavery itself”.


Zoe Crossland  is Assistant Professor at Columbia University New York NY.  She works within historical and contemporary archaeologies. Her primary interest is in situations where divergent sets of beliefs and practices are brought together by different groups of people or individuals, and the ways in which the negotiations and conflict that arise from these encounters are mediated through material conditions. At present she is working on two projects. The first considers missionary activity in Madagascar in the early 19th century; the second is concerned with theorizing archaeological knowledge practices, specifically in relation to forensic archaeology.


She says: At TAG I will talk about the challenge that the archaeology of slavery poses for current theoretical approaches in archaeology. I’d like to draw out some of the implications of recent moves towards a ‘symmetrical’ (or Latourian) archaeology and would also like to enquire into the effects of these theories for our understanding of the embodied agency and personhood of enslaved people.