The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective
The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective

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The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective

2 What is slavery?

Social inequalities have been a recurrent feature of virtually every society. From the first recognisable ‘cultures’, the Natufians, some people received different treatment after death. We may not know all that much about it, but it is a form of inequality. In the Inca empire, the Inca themselves were an exclusive elite and exploited other members of society to provide forced labour. This was a clear example of inequality between different sections of a society.

Only very rarely has a society been identified as possibly ‘egalitarian’ (i.e. without an elite), for example the Indus civilisation. An extreme form of inequality, closely related to the African diaspora, is slavery. To be more precise, a specific form of slavery, ‘chattel slavery’, has been a feature of all the phases of the diaspora that have been discussed so far. There are various forms of slavery and chattel slavery, perhaps the most severe, has been defined as follows:

‘A slave is a human being who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another human being under the religious, social and legal conventions of the society in which he or she lives.’ Being ‘the property of’ means that an owner, restricted only by the conventions of his society, is able to buy, sell, free, adopt, ill-treat or kill his slave whose children belong to their owner and can be treated in the same way. A slave has no freedom or personal rights and can become one voluntarily, by a legal decision or by force.

(Alexander, 2001, p.45)

Slavery seems to have been a common, if not constant, feature of human societies. However, there are relatively few in-depth discussions of the subject in traditional archaeological literature. Perhaps one reason for this is that slavery is difficult to detect in archaeology – after all, it is an intangible expression of power and identity (master or mistress and slave), rather than an expression of material culture. Typically, the study of slavery has been approached through the study of historical documents, but although it may be challenging, it is not impossible to study slavery using archaeological methods.

Activity 1 Read and response exercise

Now read the article, ‘The Archaeology of the African diaspora’, by Charles Orser (Orser, 1998), linked below (right-click to open it in a new window or tab).

The main purpose of this reading is to introduce you to a new area of archaeology and enable you to see how this field can be used to approach an apparently non-archaeological topic of contemporary importance. You will meet the concept of ‘maroon’ settlement – this refers to settlements established by escapee slaves.

As you read, take brief notes on the major points that Orser makes regarding the phenomenon of slavery and its implications for modern.

Click to open ‘The Archaeology of the African diaspora’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


Orser makes some big claims for his specialist area, but he does have some good points to make. It is worth noting that when he refers to ‘historical archaeology’ he means historical archaeology of (and in) the USA. He is not taking into account European medieval archaeology or industrial archaeology, for example.

The first major point he makes is that the archaeology of the African diaspora is not simply the archaeology of slavery: slavery is only one part of a larger story of how people of African origin have spread around the globe. This is reinforced by the discussion of the positive potential of studying maroon settlements rather than the negative experience of slaves.

Orser discusses the potential for employing archaeological approaches developed in the study of other cultures to address the material identification of African identity and the material aspects of maroon culture. However, there seem to be very few cases where it is possible to identify clearly a distinctive African material culture in the slave or maroon settlements.

In fact, he rejects the simplistic equation of a people, ethnic or racial group with a distinctive type of material culture when he discusses the fact that the relationship between people and the objects they use has a complex nature. In parallel with this, Orser also considers that simplistic polarisations of racial categories are not a valid basis for the investigation of past identities.

Orser also squarely addresses the fact that Archaeology can have a contemporary political and social relevance when it addresses topics such as race, and that it is not necessarily an isolated academic activity.

Orser’s article was written in 1998 and the archaeology of slavery has moved on since then. Search the internet for ‘archaeology slavery’ for an update. In 2001, an edition of the journal World Archaeology was dedicated to the subject.


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