Social stratification and the African influences in American slave communities

Studies and comparative analyses in various plantations throughout America contain markers that are indicative of severe social marginalisation among racial groups.

Furthermore ritualistic behaviours and material culture located at these sites possess within it personal items of adornment, which places emphasis on the continuity with traditional African customs sustained in slave communities in America. This essay discusses eminent pieces of evidence supporting theories of intensified social stratification and African culture highlighted in particular plantations throughout the country.

- Advertisement -

Excavations on African- American slavery in the 1960’s marked the beginning of a new research field, evolving into what could be argued as one of the foremost historical topics of the present day. Archaeological studies of everyday detritus can provide new perspectives of African- American lives that are generally absent in historical documents.

The survival of material culture plays an imperative role in broadening modern day understandings of the past human experience and assumes particular importance in accounting the unkind environment the African slaves endured. Studies and comparative analyses in various plantations throughout America hold in it markers that are indicative of severe social marginalisation among racial groups. Ritualistic behaviours and material culture including personal items of adornment portray continuity with traditional African customs sustained in slave communities in America.

The primary objective of numerous archaeological excavations is to uncover the infrastructure of slave quarters, as the buildings yield a wealth of information about the social stratification and division of labour between these communities (Singleton, 1995). It is seen through the physical evidence that the size and prosperity of the slave plantations portray a broad regional contrast, where housing conditions vary greatly throughout diverse areas (Morgan, 1998). Through the investigation of the Chesapeake plantation in Virginia, the presence of wooden chimneys, post construction and earthen floors were common (Morgan, 1998).

Furthermore, excavations at the South Carolina plantation named Curriboo uncovered the nine structures that were in domestic use, three of them serving as a barn, a naval warehouse and an office, also indicating the materials utilised in the construction (Joseph, 2002). Archaeologists have located trenches made out of mortar-like clay, which was indicative of mud walls, thought to have bordered the whole structure (Singleton, 1996 pp. 147).

- Advertisement -

It was also suggested that these walls were covered with thatch palmetto leaves, showing similarity to thatch roof houses; identified in Africa (Falola & Roberts, 2008). These slaves were thought to have constructed and occupied these mud brick residences from 1740 to approximately 1790, then replaced by framework structures up until the 1820’s (Singleton, 1996 pp. 147).

There is little evidence of chimneys throughout the plantation sites of South Carolina, suggesting that the preparation of food was conducted outdoors (Deetz, 1996). This is conclusive of the retention of African traditions that were adopted in the slave dwellings. Like the Chesapeake plantation, Curriboo also shows vast changes throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, by the influence of status, whether the slave or his/her ‘master’, housing size varied greatly, but living space per slave did not improve much over time (Morgan, 1998).

African- Americans were also not permitted to construct their own dwellings that may show clear connections to prior African forms or traditions (Deetz, 1996). Excavations of these living quarters accumulated additional information about African slavery in America. Including the living space that was given to each working person and the condition of these quarters, the social stratification between the different classes can be inferred, concluding the minimal space that each West-African was sanctioned was greatly inferior to that of the Europeans.

Archaeology has made major contributions to the understandings of foodways in slavery plantations throughout America. Through zooarchaeology; ‘the study of animal food-bone’, further interpretations can be made on not only the livelihood of these slave communities, but these can be compared to lodgings of the Europeans (Singleton, 1996).

Interpretations include the relative proportions of the food, distribution of particular cuts of meat and how these foods were prepared by the community. Georgia Sea Islands represents a primary example of the role that archaeology plays when reconstructing historical food habits of these plantations. Occupied in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, Georgia Sea Islands has two foremost slave quarters where refuse contains animal bones dated to this era (Deetz, 1996).

Diversity of species represented in the physical data uncovers over twenty different species that were regularly consumed, the majority being domesticated animals including pigs, sheep and chickens (Deetz, 1996).  However, it was concluded that overall forty-four percent of these bones located were of wild species, including raccoon, turtles and edible fish. It was also concluded that the fish were from a range of different habitats, suggesting a high level of energy exerted into their procurement.

When comparing the slave dietary to that of the planers house both similarities and differences are identified. Although there is evidence of both social divisions consuming the same meat, it is common to find the ‘poorer cuts’, i.e. the feet, heads etc. of the animal distributed within the slave community (Singleton, 1996). Conversely, there are cases where specialised foods including alligator and marine turtles are consumed by people in the upper classes. Therefore, these foods are denoted elevated hierarchical status within the plantations. Furthermore, pork was considered of higher nutritional value in comparison to mutton or beef, and was most commonly linked with people of higher stature (Smith, 1991).

Food preparation is also indicative through bone culture, as boiling meats in stews or soups leaves highly fragmented bone pieces and is seen commonly throughout slave quarters (Singleton, 1995). Similar practices of the distribution and quality of the meat given to the slaves are reflected in other plantations including Chesapeake plantations and the Mulberry Row at Thomas Jefferson’s lodging (Morgan, 1998).

However, there is some irregularity. Slight geographical variations are frequent throughout slavery plantations in America due to the differentiation of resources. Nevertheless, it became apparent through Diana Crader’s excavations at Mulberry Row that carving marks on bones were seen throughout differing social communities.

It is suggested by Crader, that higher quality of meat and altered preparation techniques (i.e. roasts instead of stews) were perceptible in slave dwellings (Singleton, 1996).  The cultivation of plants is under scrutiny as the preservation of these materials is less successful and, therefore, yields little information about edible plants in the area.

However, gardening equipment dispersed around slave dwellings supplies tangible evidence that agriculture was an engaged activity (Singleton, 1995). Archaeological evidence contributes to the information that can be gained throughout foodways of the slaves and their superiors, further contributing to modern day understandings of social stratifications and slavery treatment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Archaeological excavations have the ability to determine many factors about the sustenance of the slavery community, although some factors such as the diets nutritional value analytical evaluations of the skeletal remains. These studies on bones and teeth can yield information about the diet, nutrition, disease and other general health conditions (Singleton, 1996).

Due to the moral, legal and religious considerations, it proves to be a challenge to appropriately analyse skeletal evidence from graveyards or cemeteries. However, when in the exploration for other information, abandoned grave sites can be stumbled upon, yielding information about the health of the community (Singleton 1996).  Through the excavation of these sites, mortuary practices and overall health of the community can be established. Although there are fewer slave cemeteries then slave dwellings, which that in itself is indicative of social stratifications, the burials that have been excavated are very useful. Grave sites in a previous slavery plantation of the Catoctin furnace in Maryland, New Orleans is highly valuable in the development of modern day understandings of the slave diets.

Archaeologists’ uncovered skeletal remains that were indicative of high severity tooth decay, tooth loss, dental disease; some families suffering from degenerative or arthritic conditions resulting from physical strenuous activity (Singleton, 1996). The majority of the physical remains located at Maryland showed evidence of at least one of these conditions, highlighting the constant stress and poor nutrition strained upon the slave communities.

There is much information to be learned about the oral history of these slaves, indicating a wealth of knowledge about the social stratification of these dwellings. This includes the nature of the burials, declaring that whites did not usually attend the gathering of slave burials except for the ‘favourites’, which occasionally were buried in the European graveyards (Harris, 2003). However, not only can archaeology support or disprove the oral and written histories, excavations uncovering material culture can determine the significance or hierarchy of the individual, including their role or significance to their community. This, therefore, identifies the absence or existence of social stratification. These mortuary practises in the Chesapeake plantations signify the close relation that slaves saw with life and death. For example, burials of eighteenth century Virginia at Stratford Hall uncovered ten African residents, the majority of which were endowed with European fashion (Morgan, 1998).

On the contrary, three slaves were found to have adopted their traditional fabrics upon burial. Excavations at the same site lead to other grave goods placed in the burials; this included, a string of beads placed with an infant also uncovering a concentration of seeds scattered over the coffin (Morgan, 1998). Necklaces with beads and Cowrie shells; native to Africa, are commonly found in slave dwellings and at burial sites (Orser, 1994). This implies that the traditional burial culture of the African people was continued whilst in America. These burial practices are closely associated with traditional African-style offering (Morgan, 1998).

At James River Virginia, a burial ground has been located consisting of twenty-five individuals, dated to the first half of the eighteenth century. These burials show that these families were buried in close proximity from one another. Three of the adults had tobacco pipes placed underneath their arms, and similar evidence of beaded necklaces was apparent within this community (Morgan, 1998). Furthermore, there is evidence of short-stemmed clay pipes where a wooden tube or reed was filtered in to create a stem.

The uniqueness and lack of similarity with European pipes support the ideology that these pipes were of African origin (Orser, 1994). Excavations of the slavery community uncovered a tradition of the last crockery utilised by the individual was buried in their grave. This is supported by excavations at James River, identifying broken crockery and a wine glass placed directly above the head of the individual (Morgan, 1998). Not only does this highlight the wealth of archaeological evaluations and written or oral documents can have on the information provided about history, it signifies that many of the traditional African customs were very much constant in slave communities.

Additional studies of material culture, excavated at archaeological sites, can give further indication into the retention of African traditions in the slave communities. Although only few West-Africans had the opportunity to transport personal items of adornment, items worn on the body or in the hair most likely made it through the journey to North America (Samford, 1996).  Assemblages of artefacts, including beadworks dispersed all throughout Texan and Virginian slave sites, portrays a vital example of how African- American reworked and mass produced their cultural traditions (Singleton, 1996). They served as jewellery; particularly associated in mortuary practices with women and infants, thought to have been utilised for personal adornment, and for charms among African-Americans (Stine et. al, 1996). These beads were believed to hold great importance, where blue beads had similar protective powers, where the ownership or embellishment of blue beads portrayed high ranking or importance in a society (Samford, 1996). Other artefacts that represent the adornment of personal items are the widespread occurrence of Cowrie shells (of African origin), located in several archaeological sites throughout North America.

It is hypothesised that these shells were on the individual when captured in the slave trade, as their distribution is localised to Western Africa (Singleton, 1991). In addition, these shells were of high importance to the local people for many reasons as they were utilised as currency; decorative purposes and tools used in predictions (Samford, 1996) Other objects including locally crafted tobacco pipes that are present at Chesapeake plantations, like many items crafted by slaves, show the native African origins in their construction (Samford, 1996). The transference of objects and ideas from West Africa and the concepts of integration in behaviour and material culture are reflected in the adornment and construction of these items. It is through personal items like these that the maintenance of African influences are apparent within these American slave communities.

Religious and behavioural traditions are not only expressed through burials, but many archaeological excavations portray the significance religion had on the individuals in African- American culture throughout the eightieth and nineteenth centuries.

The Jordan plantation is highly recognized archaeological site as one of the foremost assemblages of ritual paraphernalia. Excavations of this site, uncovered materials owned by labourers in the salve dwellings dated to 1848 (Singleton, 1995). These materials include cast iron kettles, used chalk, fragments of a small weighing scale, an animal’s paw, seashells, bottles and chert samples (Singleton, 1995).

Although the majority of these objects are unremarkable and located in many other archaeological sites, when all material culture is lumped together it can be inferred that these artefacts serve ritualistic or religious purposes.

All found mutually in a corner of an excavated building, these objects are congruent with modern day healing rituals, adapted from West African- style conjurer kits (Samford, 1996). Ethnographic studies are carried out to unearth the meaning of these materials, concluding that objects such as wooden or metal trays, white chalk or powder and bird symbols are utilised by native Africans in healing rituals (Singleton, 1996).

Many of these objects are considered to be powerful items assisting with magic; religious belief system where spells can be cast, fortune telling and the healing of the sick (Orser, 1994). These artefacts displaying the importance of material culture emphasises the importance of tradition and customs that was apparent in slave communities. Informative material culture has been associated with the Jordan plantation adding new dimensions into the spiritual significance of the West-African enslaved.

Presence of valuable items including Chinese porcelain is located throughout many archaeological sites and has been interpreted as primarily possessions secured by the upper classes. However, rarely fine china tea sets have still been located throughout these slave dwellings (Deetz, 1996).

Archaeologists have interpreted these as rare individuals acquired these items in exceptional circumstances. These interpretations, as proposed in Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten, include cast offs that slaves received as gifts from the planters household, purchased through ‘hiring out their labour’, selling produce or livestock. In addition these items may have been acquired through theft or burglary from the wealthier residences.

It is very likely that all of these occurred at some point throughout these communities at different times and varying degrees. The abundance or occurrence of particular ceramics or pottery can also reflect the regular diet for the rich and for the poor (Kelso, 1984). It is also portrayed though the presence of these items, the changes in social norms throughout time. For example, pottery was of high abundance throughout the Kingsmill plantation until its constancy disappears late in the eighteenth century. This is the same as flatware and eating vessels also decline in profusion. On the contrary there is a distinct amplification of drinking vessels including Chinese porcelains (Kelso, 1984). This is congruent with the excessive drinking of tea throughout the late eighteenth century.

The wide dispersal of early eighteenth century pottery is present throughout the vast majority of colonial Virginia slave sights, also continuing throughout sites in South Carolina and Georgia (Singleton, 1995). To date, archaeological evidence of pottery is reflected in hollow forms, which many indicate the processing of stewed foods that are common throughout traditional culinary practices in Africa (Samford, 1996).

Furthermore, vestiges of geometric designs found on spoons found after excavations at Maryland and Kingsmill plantations show that of great similarity to the spoon bowls and handles that are decorated by modern day decedents of the slaves (Singleton, 1991). It is through the analysis of these ceramics and of pottery that our modern day understandings of social stratification and the incessant retention and adaptation of traditions imitating African culture are still very well present in slavery deposits. This assists in determining the value of African customs in new surroundings where the social norms are vastly dissimilar.

The interest in the social stratifications in the African-American slavery communities throughout the continent has to lead to the extensive research of these sites, broadening modern day understandings of the culture and livelihood of the plantations. The construction and diversity of buildings and the procurement and preparation of food highlight the living conditions and behaviour of the slaves in comparison to the surrounding European communities.

Health and disease among slaving communities places emphasise onto the lack of medical attention and poor nutrition revealed in African individuals; the majority of them burdened with diseases in the gums and arthritic conditions derived from continuous strenuous activities. Formation of cultural identity within the West-African communities in America retains the customs and traditions of their ancestors. These processes of cultural change resulting from contact between Europeans and Africans and the presence of West-African cultural markers are established in the archaeological record through the procurement of material culture.

There is much more to be established about African- American archaeology in the United States, where material culture can serve as a primary source of information. The late development of interest within this field has progressed into one of the foremost areas of historical archaeology, continuing to attract attention today.

Written by Ashleigh Murszewski

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.

Roman Era tomb found guarded by carved bull heads

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Tharsa necropolis have uncovered a Roman Era tomb guarded by two carved bull heads.

Revolutionary war barracks discovered at Colonial Williamsburg

Archaeologists excavating at Colonial Williamsburg have discovered a barracks for soldiers of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence.

Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought

Archaeologists have found that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers settled in Cyprus thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Groundbreaking study reveals new insights into chosen locations of pyramids’ sites

A groundbreaking study, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, has revealed why the largest concentration of pyramids in Egypt were built along a narrow desert strip.

Soldiers’ graffiti depicting hangings found on door at Dover Castle

Conservation of a Georgian door at Dover Castle has revealed etchings depicting hangings and graffiti from time of French Revolution.

Archaeologists find Roman villa with ornate indoor plunge pool

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Cultural Heritage have uncovered a Roman villa with an indoor plunge pool during excavations at the port city of Durrës, Albania.

Archaeologists excavate medieval timber hall

Archaeologists from the University of York have returned to Skipsea in East Yorkshire, England, to excavate the remains of a medieval timber hall.