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Levi Jordan Plantation

What I learned by doing archaeology at the Levi Jordan Plantation

by Doreen C. Cooper
Project Archaeologist
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
P.O. Box 517
Skagway, Alaska 99840

Doreen excavating under a house, somewhere in Skagway, Alaska. Isn't archaeology glamorous?

Also included: a paper that Doreen delivered at the Annual Meetings of the Society for Historical Archaeology several years ago, about some of the early research done at the plantation on the abandonment question.

I worked for Dr. Ken Brown at the Levi Jordan Plantation site from 1986 until 1990 (I graduated with a Master's Degree in Anthropology in December 1989). For me personally it was a turning point in my life, it was when I decided to become a professional archaeologist. That was not an easy decision because there are not many jobs for archaeologists, and the pay is not that great! Some archaeologists can "afford" to do archaeology because they have a spouse with a steady job (that has benefits like health insurance and retirement), or perhaps come from a family that has enough money to support them. Despite these problems, all the archaeologists I know share something in common we all love what we do! I was lucky to find a job working for the National Park Service in Alaska. Lots of people think Alaska is all snow and ice, but that is not true. But we certainly can't work outside almost year round like we did at the LJ Plantation! Up here we spend the winter analyzing the artifacts we found in the summer, and writing reports about our work.

I would like to see archaeology taught in schools as another way to find out about and understand things that happened in the past. It was during the time I worked at the LJ Plantation that I first understood that it is not the artifacts that we find that are important, but what we can learn from them about the past. At the Plantation I began to understand how complex group living situations could be, and the changing dynamics through time. In the beginning of its existence it was Levi Jordan's money that bought the land but it was the work of the slaves that built most of the buildings, cleared the fields and grew the crops that made the owner a profit. At the same time, Levi Jordan supposed to make sure that the slaves had food and clothing. They were partners, but it was an unequal partnership since the slaves did not share in the profits of the plantation.

I began to understand more about the inequities of this partnership when I began work at the Plantation site. First, the large house that the owner had lived in was still standing (although it was in pretty bad shape), but there was nothing left standing of the houses where the slaves lived. Just figuring out where their buildings had been was the first task the archaeologists had to do. Once we began digging where we saw some brick rubble on the surface, we began to understand how the buildings were constructed. The whole time I was there we were still not sure exactly how many people lived there, how many people lived in each room, and if they lived in families or were just divided into houses for men and women.

Another thing we were trying to understand while I was there was why we were finding different kinds of artifacts in different rooms. Just about each room we excavated while I was there had some evidence that it had been used for normal everyday activities like eating (we found many fragments of bottles and dishes), but other things looked different. Some rooms had what looked like a lot of things used in sewing thimbles, needles, buttons. Other places looked like they had special tools perhaps used in woodworking. We also found a lot of spent rifle shells and bullets that may have been used in hunting. Were the slaves, and later tenant farmers, making clothes and things, and hunting animals, for themselves, or to sell to other people? Because the other thing we found at the site were coins from many years. Why were they still there, why hadn't they been spent? I did not work at the site long enough to find out that answer for myself, but I know it is a question that Dr. Brown would like to answer, and perhaps he already has!

How do you excavate ideas, or people's feelings? Even when we find something that may have been important to someone in the past, we may not understand what it really meant at the time. Think of something really important to you maybe a collar from a favorite pet, a photograph of a hero like Martin Luther King, a toy you can't bear to part with would archaeologists in the future be able to understand what those things meant to you? There are many things we will not understand about the past. But some things we can. In the first year I worked at the Plantation, we found a pair of shackles in a wall. That was really frightening because you sensed not just how one person at a time was in pain, but a whole population that had to have the fear of such punishment hanging over them all the time. But then we began to find things little things at first like a small vial with an animal's paw, a button that from one side looked normal, but had a symbol on the bottom that also made it look like the people living there were strong, and had their own beliefs, and their own ways of healing, that helped take some of the sting out of the fact that not only were they poor, but they were not their own masters. Even after slavery ended, many of the people probably did not have the money to go anywhere else, so they stayed there. They may have hoped that their former owners would treat them fairly, and share some of the land with them that the slaves had improved with their physical labor. Over the years, that hope must have died. But at the same time, we have those little hints that they maintained ideas and beliefs that made their lives tolerable.

So archaeology is usually not about finding big, important buildings or things. It is often about finding little things, and then understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle could fit together so that we can understand things that happened before we were born. That is what I learned at the Levi Jordan Plantation, and what I try to communicate to others. And that is why that unless a site is excavated scientifically, by people who are committed to understanding those things, then it should be left alone. Through field schools and by people volunteering their free time to help on these archaeological projects, lots of people can experience the excitement that I always feel when I am working. The important thing is to remember that those artifacts don't mean anything by themselves, it is up to us you and me to put together pieces of the puzzle. Please remember that when you see people just digging up artifacts to be sold somewhere! Once they are removed without having an understanding about the site they came from, they are meaningless and, to me, lack value.


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