Slavery is an institution in which people are treated as property. Due to the perception that they aren’t actually human, they can be bought, sold, and used like any other belonging. In the past, slavery was a part of many societies, and it is only recently that it has been outlawed and viewed as inappropriate. While the estimates of numbers of slaves today ranges from 12 to 27 million people, proportionally there has been a major decrease. Slavery is not only extremely degrading to the individual, but also can leave permanent effects on the body due to the constant stress of work and limited access to resources. This means that we can find evidence on the skeleton. We can also find evidence of slavery in burials, such as different treatment of the burials or restrictions on spaces that they can bury them. Slaves also have a tendency to be a different culture from the dominant one, which can lead to different funerary patterns and grave goods. Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have excavated a unique slave burial ground on the island of St Helena, revealing more about how slavery appears in the mortuary record.
The island of St Helena, located off the coast of south-west Africa, was used as landing place for slaves who were captured by the Royal Navy during the suppression of the slave trade in the mid 19th century. In a 30 year period, around 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island after being rescued from slave traders. However, the horrifying conditions aboard the ships meant that many did not survive their journey even after they had been freed. In addition to this, St. Helena was poorly suited to act as a sanctuary or refugee camp for the large numbers of ailing individuals. It is estimated that at least 5,000 people died and were buried on the island.
Between 2006 and 2008, archaeological excavation was conducted prior to airport construction in the area. The dig recovered 325 individuals from single, multiple and mass graves. Most were placed in shallow graves without coffins; only five had burial containers and these were all young sub-adults. The majority of the individuals are teens or young adults, primarily individuals who would have been prime for the slave trade. Regardless of the conditions of their burial, which suggest a lack of care, there is a high amount of grave goods that show clear ethnic identity. A number of individuals had dental modifications which likely show status or kin affiliation, and a number had jewelry. Although there was also the presence of metal slave tags with a number of the bodies. The full analysis of the skeletons and their graves isn’t available on line, but from other studies we can see how slavery effects burial and body.
Bioarchaeological analyses have taken place on a number of slave cemeteries from the Barbados and Americas. In general, the average age at death ranges from 28 to 35, with females living slightly longer than males. Both males and females had signs of nutritional stress during childhood in the form of enamel hypoplasia, scurvy, rickets and anemia. All of these are due to improper diet, associated with limited access to resources. Degeneration and muscular stress is also present on the skeleton, showing clear signs of a life of hard labor. While burial spaces are often highly restricted, the actual funeral was left to the slave community members. This means that grave goods and evidence of the funerals can be interpreted as acts done by the community of the deceased, rather than the dominant one. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all cemeteries, rather is a general trend. We can use the grave goods and jewelry as signs of individual or ethnic identity, and can track how well they were able to maintain this throughout the slavery process (Corrunccini et al 1982, Rathburn 1987, Watters 1993)
For more details on the St. Helena Excavation and the monograph see Past Horizon’s writeup: Slave burial ground excavated on St. Helena
Rathbun, T. (1987). Health and disease at a South Carolina plantation: 1840–1870 American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 74 (2), 239-253 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330740211
Corruccini, R., Handler, J., Mutaw, R., & Lange, F. (1982). Osteology of a slave burial population from Barbados, West Indies American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 59 (4), 443-459 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330590414
Watters 1994 Mortuary Patterns at the Harney Site Slave Cemetery. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 56-73