1 Why study slavery through archaeology?
The transatlantic slave trade has had a significant social and cultural impact on the modern Western world. But surely this is a historical question, so what can archaeology have to do with it?
Archaeology has a distinctive position as a subject because it is essentially interdisciplinary, drawing upon the Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, Sciences or indeed any other subject that might be relevant in order to investigate the human past through its material remains. Just as now, people in the past created all kinds of material traces of their lives and, because of this, archaeology can study literally anything that people have done. This freedom enables archaeologists to study things from any time in the past and, possibly more importantly, to evaluate how things have changed from one time to the next.
Archaeology is also uniquely placed to study non-elite parts of societies through their material culture (be it from prehistory or historical periods). Written documents relating to the African diaspora to the Americas are overwhelmingly written by the enslavers, not the slaves. Archaeology has the opportunity to apply its particular approaches to the academic study of the subject.
However, as you will soon see, it has been slow to take up the challenge. Although Greek and Roman slavery has long been studied, it is rarely given an explicitly African focus. There has been virtually no archaeological study of the East African slave trade (Alexander, 2001). The archaeological study of the transatlantic diaspora has only recently developed out of the archaeological interest in the first Western settlers in North America, and the remains of their colonial settlements.