CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE PAST
Kenneth L. Brown, Ph.D.
On general findings, and the "internal" and "external" economies at the Levi Jordan Plantation
excerpted from "Material Culture and Community Structure: The Slave and Tenant Community at Levi Jordan's Plantation, 1848-1892." (2).
extremely large percentage of the artifacts and artifact
contexts thus far recovered represent the preserved
remains of possessions abandoned by the tenants as they
were forced to leave in 1892. [See "Abandonment" for a description of continuing research
on this question.] The result of this forced abandonment,
the locking of the quarters for nearly 25 years prior to
their systematic demolition, and flooding which resulted
in the deposition of soil over the site has provided an
important set of materials representing items hastily
abandoned by their owners. Further, the materials have
been recovered in a position relatively close to that in
which they were left by their owners. (At least, in terms
of their general position relative to other materials
within each of the cabins.). It is from these abandonment
deposits that evidence of occupational specialization,
political status, economic status, African behavioral and
belief systems, and cultural evolution has been
recovered. Given the large number of native Africans
listed in the 1870 Federal Census for Brazoria County,
Texas, this evolution was likely the result of several
processes, including acculturation, the direct
"importation" of African beliefs and
behaviors/beliefs, and changes
brought about through emancipation.
To date, excavations have been conducted into fourteen individual slave/tenant cabins within the community. This figure includes excavation into all eight of the original cabins in block II, three cabins in block III, and one cabin in block I. (A map with these cabins will be included in this web site in early 1998). The data is being employed to demonstrate a variety of aspects concerning the lifeways of these temporal communities. These aspects include evidence of the presence of a political hierarchy, ritual activities, and economic differences among the members of the communities. When this archaeological data is combined with the historical research, there is, again, the strong suggestion of continuity, although certain aspects (particularly ritual ones) may become more pronounced over time. The major behavioral changes noted within the archaeological record appear in occupation, diet, access, access to "store bought" items, location of ritual activities, settlement patterning of the community, and other aspects of behavior.
However, some of the apparent changes might be the result of differences between two of the archaeologically defined deposits in the cabins (e.g., the "abandonment deposit" and the "sub-floor" deposit), rather than the reflection of actual changes in the behavior and/or beliefs of members of the communities. That is, the so-called abandonment deposit is larger and more complete, because it represents the remains hastily left by the cabins occupants. This deposit is defined by the observation that many of the items are complete (thus, usable at the time they become part of the archaeological deposit) and normally curated (removed when people move from one location to another). The sub-floor deposit was built up during the use of the cabins. Therefore, the sub-floor deposit would represent only those items which were lost, intentionally discarded, or merely deposited as a result of cleaning activities in the cabin they fell through cracks in the floor boards. Items placed below floor boards for safe keeping can be distinguished from either of the above deposits as a result of their having been placed into holes dug into the soil below the floor boards.
Finally, it should be pointed out that not all of the cabins thus far tested have revealed evidence of sudden, forced abandonment. It appears likely that only nine of the fourteen archaeologically tested and defined cabins were occupied at the time of this "eviction". The other five cabins appear to have served as residences during the post-emancipation period, but were apparently not occupied when the Martins forced an end to the community. The occupants of these cabins appear to have moved, taking many, if not all, of their possessions with them. At present it is not possible to determine when these earlier moves occurred. However, historical records do indicate that a number of the families known to have been residing on the plantation in 1880 moved out prior to 1892.
Two aspects of the archaeological and historic data relative to the slave and tenant community will be addressed in the remainder of this paper: the economic activities defined within these temporal communities and the structure of the communities. Both of these aspects aid in addressing the question of the role of the community in the survival and adaptation of slaves and tenants in the rural South during the latter half of the nineteenth century. While the issue of the "typicality" of the Jordan Plantation can be debated, it is within the context of this larger question that the data and interpretations derived from this excavation may prove to be most important.
As with any community of people that is not completely self-sufficient and self contained, the slave and tenant communities of the Jordan Plantation functioned, in an economic sense, on several levels. At their most general, these levels could be labeled as the "internal economy" and as the "external economy". The internal economy would consist of those relationships band behaviors whose primary functions were to maintain the plantation as a community. These would include the economic activities of individuals, as well as families, within the slave/tenant communities and the relationships among members of the communities and the European/American power structure on the plantation (owner, overseer, manager). The external economy would consist of those activities and relationships whose primary functions were to connect the plantations communities to the outside world. While these are not mutually exclusive sets of relationships and behaviors, the economic viability of any individual or family requires success in both arenas. However, what is not necessarily obvious, is that within the levels, very different relationships and behaviors were emphasized.
The economic structures of the Jordan Plantations slave and tenant communities are being investigated through the study of a number of artifacts and their distribution within the archaeological deposits. For example, diet (particularly the use of animal proteins), occupation, the distribution of "non-utilitarian" and/or "expensive" items (e.g., jewelry and other personal items, porcelain and less expensive ceramics, and silverware and other utensils) are currently being studied. The question here is: are there artifacts and/or artifact contexts that demonstrate the relative economic status of a cabins inhabitants within the slave and/or tenant communities? If such artifacts and contexts exist, are there changes over time?
Clearly, there are major problems with the interpretation of an economic hierarchy based solely on archaeological data. Materials employed as economic indicators may have entered the households in a number of ways (e.g., as purchases, gifts, or through theft). In an archaeological setting it is obviously not absolutely possible to determine the mechanism(s) by which the items entered the various households. Further, it is not possible to completely establish the number of individuals within these households who could have obtained these items. However, these and other problems notwithstanding, the economic structure may be investigated through questioning the type, amount, and continuity of artifacts within the archaeological context of the tested cabins. Historical records can be employed to demonstrate that certain types of artifacts were more expensive than others. Some households have more of these items, and they have a history of having had more of them.
From the data, it is possible to define a number of aspects of the economic structure of the slave and tenant communities. There appears to be patterned variability in the artifacts/artifact types represented within this data. Both the patterns of variability and the large number of some of these items argue against the hypothesis that theft was a primary, or even major, mechanism for obtaining the items. Archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the communitys households invested a larger amount of capital in obtaining "expensive" personal items, while other households did not. A possible reason for these decisions was the difference in expendable income between households in the communities. Further, differences in consumer choice might help to explain why households vary in the items on which capital was expended.
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‹ Carol McDavid 1998