One of the more common (though often frustrating) questions we get in archaeology is “Why are you doing historic archaeology? We already know what happened”. To some extent, for eras where there are written records, we do have a broad understanding of what happened. Political texts and documents from the past can revel broad historical events such as wars and changes in government, diaries may reveal how life was experienced day to day by a group of people, and artwork can reveal the types of clothing, food, architecture, and activities were part of that era. However, it is important to remember that texts, documents, artwork, maps and even photographs do not necessarily tell the truth. They tell one part of the story based on whomever was creating that piece of text or art. They tell the stories of the victors, the people in power, the story that they want you to hear. This is why archaeology of the past, even the written historic past, is so important. Archaeology tells a different story. It shows what people were actually doing, what they were leaving behind, what they ate, how they lived and died. A great example of this is the work done recently on forgotten populations- such as slaves and women in the historic USA. Despite the fact that both groups made up a large portion of the population, their individual stories are not frequently shared, and we are given the white male perspective of history. Archaeology is correcting this, and helping us learn more about these forgotten groups.
A new study by Bigman (2014), examines the Prior Cemetery found in Morgan County, Georgia. Bigman (2014) notes that in this area during the 18th and 19th century, slave ownership was fairly common, however the treatment of the enslaved individuals was highly varied by the landowner they worked for. While we know that slavery is a tragedy from human history (and still continuing today in some parts of the world), archaeology allows us to learn about variation within slave ownership and treatment in the past. The Prior Cemetery was started in the early 1800s by the Prior family, and the land was divided into two primary sections: a family cemetery for the Priors and a community cemetery. However, between these two plots of land is an area where it has been rumored that slaves were given unmarked burials. Since the treatment of burials is reflective of broader social relationships, examining how the slaves were treated in death may help us better understand how they were treated in life at this one community.
In order to determine whether there are unmarked burials, Bigman (2014) begins by conducting a number of geophysical prospection techniques. First, a grid was set up over the Prior family cemetery and the area between the two cemeteries where unmarked graves were thought to be located. The first method involves the use of electromagnetic conductivity, which the ability of an electric current to pass through soil more or less easily. More compact soil has a higher conductivity, whereas loose soil, such as that found in burial shafts, has a lower conductivity. Second, ground penetrating radar (GPR) produces radio waves which bounce against discontinuities in the soil, as is often found in burials. This creates a map showing anomalies in the soil material. Lastly, magnetic susceptibility was used to determine whether there is variation in the magnetic field, as it has been shown in lab testing that culturally modified soil has a different magnetism than naturally laid soils.
Based on the combination of these three methods, Bigman (2014) was able to determine that there were 21 unmarked graves, 18 of which were found in between the Prior and community cemeteries, and 3 found within the Prior cemetery. Those found within the limits of the Prior cemetery likely represent family members whose headstones went missing or were disturbed. The 18 graves between the cemetery however, likely belong to slaves who died under the ownership of the Prior family. The graves were determined to be in a straight line, and metal probing was able to successfully determine that each of these was indeed a burial. Based on this, Bigman (2014) concludes that the Prior family buried their slaves outside of the boundaries of their own cemetery plot, but placed them in similarly deep grave shafts, in an ordered line, facing in the same East to West orientation as the family members. Lack of overlap between the burials also suggests that at one point they likely had grave markers for each slave burial. Bigman (2014) argues that “Burying slaves next to the family may indicate that the Prior family held their slaves in high regard despite social constraints placed on the Prior’s”.
There was no formal excavation as part of this assessment of the cemetery, just the geophysical survey. While excavation could tell us more about the differences between the Prior family and the slave community, it would also mean disturbing the burials of these individuals. As archaeologists, if we can add to the lost narrative of history without physically disturbing the past, it is important to do so. In excavating burials, we also destroy the original context of the burial. Studies like this one help us to reconstruct lost stories without actually disturbing the deceased.
For another example of this, check out the post on the St. Helena Slave Cemetery as well.
Bigman, D. (2013). Mapping social relationships: geophysical survey of a nineteenth-century American slave cemetery Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 6 (1), 17-30 DOI: 10.1007/s12520-013-0119-6