Digging into Plymouth’s slave history
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A fragment of a tamarind jar, an unglazed piece of reddish-brown ceramics, and a gray Native American pestle are some of the discoveries that could bring a new distinction to this most historic of historic American towns.
An excavation this summer in a small shed and nearby grounds on North Street has yielded more than 30,000 artifacts dating back 1,000 years. But the prized finds have been the bits and pieces that “might point to an African origin and [dwellers’] desire to maintain a physical, spiritual, and ental connection with their origins,’’ said archeologist Craig Chartier.
Now the findings have to be compared with known slave sites in the United States before determining whether the shed, which is recorded in the online archives of the Massachusetts Historic Commission as “slave quarters,” is the second remaining slave home in the Northeast, joining the Isaac Royall House in Medford.
“There is very good evidence of slaves at the site . . . but I would need a lot more evidence of African folkways and African-influenced material culture artifacts, as well as the probability that after exhausting all possibilities, it couldn’t be anything else,” said Chartier. That confirmation could come as early as this winter.
Chartier, who is director of the New Bedford-based Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project, led a team of trained and novice workers on the backyard dig. The project began in April, with a $15,000 Community Preservation Fund grant spurred by historian Rose T. Briggs’s typewritten reference to Colonel George Watson’s slave house in a 1967 Massachusetts Historical Inventory Form that she submitted on behalf of the Pilgrim Society.
The Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s executive director, Donna Curtin, found the reference two years ago while searching in the society’s file for documents by Briggs. Curtin, long curious about slave lore surrounding the small building, which was most recently used as a tool shed for the Plymouth Arts Center, then pushed for the grant.
“New England slavery is a part of history people have not been that interested in thinking about or understanding, but now is the time to come back and scientifically investigate this,” said Curtin, noting that “Massachusetts was the first colony to pass laws to allow slavery in 1641, ironically called the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.”
For years, the late James Deetz’s pioneering archeology in the mid-1970s at Parting Ways, a freed slave community in Plymouth, served as a template for African-American archeology. Deetz worked with local African-American volunteers instead of archeology students, and interpreted artifacts within the context of African culture incorporated into the lives of slaves in Colonial America.
In recent years, however, his approach has been viewed as too speculative.
“Cultural traits transplanted wholesale from the African continent into the New World is a very static view of material culture and doesn’t look at cultural relations, cultural process, and the creation or origins of where and when did we come up with ideas of blackness and whiteness,” said Alexandra Chan, the lead archeologist on the Isaac Royall House excavation.
“If you’re only focused on picking up a piece and saying this is African or European, you kind of miss the bigger picture,” she said.
A 1990s dig led by Stephen Mrozowski of the University of Massachusetts Boston and current research by Boston University doctoral candidate Karen Hutchins has modified some of the interpretations at Parting Ways.
For example, Deetz thought he had found evidence of a West African floor plan within the New England-style houses at Parting Ways. But according to Hutchins, “We now know that at least one of the homes was built by a white squatter . . . and there is no way of knowing what the interior would have looked like from the archeological remains.”
About a decade ago, Chan excavated the Medford estate of prosperous merchant and slave owner Isaac Royall, and was moved by what she called the “small finds, personal possessions, evidence of leisure time activities and self-adornment . . . that helps to bring these people out of the shadows of anonymity [so that] for the briefest, most exhilarating of moments . . . time seems to collapse in on itself and I can almost feel our hands touch across time.”
Now, in Plymouth, Chartier is sorting through the bounty of artifacts found at the North Street property that belonged to Watson, a well-to-do mariner and slave owner.
The shed, built in the early 18th century, remains in its original location, though the timber structure was raised over a cobblestone base in the 1830s. Continued...