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Levi Jordan


Maria Franklin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, and in the process of having a strong impact on archaeological research of the Africa diaspora. Her role in this project is primarily one of critic and colleague. Specifically, she served as a discussant in a session about the Jordan Plantation archaeology held at the 1998 Annual Meetings of the Society for Historical Archaeology, chaired by Ken Brown and Carol McDavid. Maria has graciously allowed us to publish the comments made during that session on this web site. Links from her comments are provided to (and from) the papers she heard that day.

We hope to include a picture of Maria, and a C.V. so you can learn more about her in the future.

Comments on "Perspectives on the Evolution of African American Culture: The Historical Archaeology of the Tenant Community at the Levi Jordan Plantation"
by Maria Franklin. Delivered at SHA Conference 1998, Atlanta, GA.

I would first like to thank the chairs, Ken Brown and Carol McDavid, for inviting me to participate in this session. Like many of you I have followed the Levi Jordan plantation project with great interest, and with not just a little bit of artifact envy. This site really has it all, great temporal depth, undisturbed floors, good historical sources, and of course, lots of really cool stuff!

This session represents an ambitious undertaking in pulling together all aspects of this twelve-year intensive study. Ken and Carol are also to be commended for not taking the easy way out in coming up with a session theme. The unifying theme could easily have been the archaeology of Levi Jordan plantation, but they set their objectives much higher, and state in their abstract that the common thread for these papers would be the use of a postprocessual contextual methodology that is multidisciplinary to boot. And our critics say there's no rigorous theorizing in African American archaeology. Still, the difficulty arises in actually implementing methodology, and in bringing data and theory together to arrive at new, relevant, and hopefully interesting insights into past cultures. In preparing my comments then, that's what I mostly looked for.

Rebecca Barrera's goal was to look at social relations between blacks and whites, and how they changed over time from the period of slavery to emancipation and tenancy. Here is what I felt was the strength of her paper, in that she was attempting to consider how structures of oppression operated at Levi Jordan over time. She relied heavily on the archaeological record to interpret building use and disuse and changes in the landscape, and I was impressed with the detailed field analysis and interpretation of the site formation processes. Rebecca did a wonderful job in delineating how spatial and architectural features shifted over time to indicate a shift in social relations between blacks and whites in moving from slavery to tenancy. Rebecca also looked to see if there were any differences in socio-economic status between slave/tenants and planter. I for one was hardly surprised when she found them. I would encourage her to forego the status differentiation stuff a la John Otto, and stick with the more intriguing and useful interpretations regarding the shift in race relations.

Mary K. Barnes essentially had one goal, and that was to figure out why at least nine cabins were abandoned around 1887. I'd say she was successful. If I were a black tenant, living as Mary put it in an "economic atmosphere that was tenuous and oppressive," plus had to deal with those unruly landowners, the Martin boys, I'd have left in a hurry too. But I'd hate to think that she did all of this archival research for just this reason. I think Mary and Rebecca should work on something together, and really try to synthesize the historical and archaeological evidence in order to better understand black/white social relationships during the tenancy period. I have a suggested starting point for them also, something they both mention in their papers, but apparently disagree upon. Did paternalism, an ideology practiced widely by whites during slavery, play a role in how whites treated blacks any time after emancipation? Mary suggests that the "paternal management of the farm" made life rough for blacks, while Rebecca suggests that paternalism was non-existent during this same period. I think that if you work on this question, you may be able to start to better unravel the mindset of whites as they scrambled to maintain some control over blacks, and in turn, how blacks responded.

Robert Harris focused on the evidence for the craft specialization of carving on the plantation, and tried to determine whether one particular cabin might have been the dwelling/work space of the carver. He clearly thought through every argument that a pessimist might throw at him, and I believe he stands on firm ground with his final interpretation that the carver's cabin has been identified. Now on to his interpretations regarding the role that this person played within this community. Robert begins by asking why a carver would be needed by these people. Maybe they didn't need him; maybe the carver just needed to carve. But I prefer Robert's interpretation that this individual, along with others, provided material items which served to unify this community. I think he is right on in stating that this activity was a cultural strategy with resistive aspects. But I'm curious about how these crafts and their producers influenced the internal relationships within the black community, but not just in their "positive" manifestations. This whole communal, warm fuzzy feeling crops up several times in this session, and I'm wondering about jealousy, envy and other emotions which surely wreaked havoc from time to time within this neighborhood. For example, was there a hierarchy, and how were craftspeople ranked? The archaeological evidence suggests that there was differential access to the carver's products; what might that mean?

Jorge Garcia-Herreros focused on the munitions-maker's cabin, and attempted to define his role within his community. He is absolutely right, again, that this community would've had to pull together for strength, and he makes the important observation that self-sufficiency would have been crucial in order to meet their basic needs, and in establishing independence from whites. Jorge argues that the munitions maker would have been the more important specialist providing not only the means to procure game, but also for providing the means to protect. Here is where I would have to disagree on why this individual was important. First, you don't need firearms to hunt; a good hound dog and a big stick will get you a possum, or you could fish for that protein. Second, I would de-emphasize the importance of firepower as a means of protection, especially from whites. By the time a crisis would reach the point where a black would actually raise a gun to a white, he'd have to shoot the person, because just threatening a white would mean certain death, so I think that would have been a desperate, last ditch effort at protection. The hunting activity that Jorge discusses might be the best line of evidence to follow, however. Skilled hunters were held in high esteem within black communities during enslavement, and probably afterwards also. Could this munitions maker also be a hunter who may have bartered his game to his neighbors? If this was so, perhaps his primary role within the community was as a hunter who also made munitions (for himself and others).

Ken and Kris's paper focused on the now very well-known conjurer/midwife residence, and what is the newly interpreted Praise House, which is sure to also stir up some debate and dialogue. They begin by advocating a contextual approach to the interpretation of ritual artifacts. In doing so, they critique other studies of ritual artifacts as uncritical interpretations where context is given no consideration. Here I believe they are a bit harsh on their colleagues. Context is of course important, but if one finds a raccoon penis bone that is grooved on one end, facilitating its stringing and wearing, I think we can forgive the fact that it was found in the backfill of a root cellar. To use another one of their examples, pierced coins. Dozens of oral accounts speak of their use as luck charms, and recent excavations of a black cemetery in Texas revealed a dozen bodies with pierced silver coins on the breast plate or by the ankle. Again, even if these artifacts were discovered in a trash midden on a site associated with blacks, I'd still say that they likely served some ritual purpose. Re-use and reinterpretation of everyday objects, often indicated on individual artifacts by piercing, notching, shaping, and incising, can be as important a sign of ritual use as context. Though I do agree that the blue bead thing has gotten a bit out of hand.

I've always been very intrigued with the findings within the conjurer's cabin, and it's clear that Kris and Ken put a lot of thought into their interpretations and aren't just seeing these things because they want to. Unlike most of us. For the first time that I'm aware, they see practices associated not only with the BaKongo, but with the Yoruba also, and yes, I too see the connection between the iron kettle and its contents and the orisha Ogun, the god of war in the Yoruba pantheon. I'm just wondering when Christianity is going to figure into this. I would have thought that with the discovery of a crucifix within a praise house/church, that a discussion of Christianity would follow, but the "C" word isn't even mentioned.[although it is on this web site; see Ken Brown Interview].Especially seeing as how the conjurer may have also been a founding member of Grace Methodist Church. I see great potential here for discovering how black American religiosity transformed over time, especially after slavery, but they will have to move beyond merely looking for the roots of black spirituality and towards theorizing about cultural process.

I really liked David Bruner's idea of how blacks may have used, as he puts it, "cemetery landscapes as arenas for resistance." I largely agreed with his final interpretation, that slaves and tenants used cemetery features and artifacts as "symbols of community solidarity", and yes, this probably was oppositional to white American beliefs and practices. I did, however, have a hard time with the way in which he arrived at his conclusions by employing a trait-seeking technique where there was a list for white burial traditions and one for black burial traditions, but clearly the Jordan plantation community's culture had transformed because they borrowed some of each. This is highly reminiscent of the acculturation models we all like to critique that basically reduces culture to traits, and where the end result is a static view of culture where people merely gained some new behaviors, and lost some old ones. Also, although this is supposed to be a post-processual session, there are some un-post-processual moments in this paper. Part of one sentence reads, "inductively generated model that requires further testing." I'm sure Lew Binford would be proud, though I doubt that was the intent. In the end, I think that there are some solid ideas here based on sound analogies, and a thorough understanding of how objects can be imbued with multiple layers of meaning. I do want to point though, that the railroad equipment and pipes did not seem to me to be an attempt by blacks to use items that whites would not have associated with black identity. Consider the context: these items were driven into burial plots. I don't think blacks were trying to mask anything here. It may seem like I'm picking on David's paper the most, but in fact I thoroughly enjoyed his paper and learned a lot. I think he took the most difficult road by trying to concentrate on deriving meaning from these artifacts, and by really going for some interesting interpretations. I look forward to seeing more on this.

Carol McDavid's web project I think is truly ground-breaking, because it's not simply an archaeology web site, but one which employs a critical approach where archaeological knowledge claims are decentered, and where interaction is greatly encouraged. It goes without saying that this is a very challenging project when we just consider the work involved in laying out a web site that covers 12 years of archaeological research where hundreds of thousands of artifacts were recovered spanning some 150 years. But on top of this, Carol wants the web site to be reflexive, multivocal, contextual and interactive. I'm glad she's going for it. Read: I'm glad it's not me!

This web site, although it's in preliminary stages, is great, and I highly encourage you all to visit it. I only have one piece of advice with regard to some of your possible additions. You mention "hypertext may be able to replicate the archaeologist's own thought process" enabling a site visitor to follow it. I don't think the public's ready for that! Anyone who knows Carol and how she is about her work knows that she's very detail-oriented, which can be great with something like this, but it can also be a curse if you try to please everyone and attempt to cover every angle, no matter how reflexive you want to be. The bottom line is, this web site will be a trend-setting, great success.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, I thought the session as a whole really came together along the lines of a contextual methodology, and a multidisciplinary approach. There was a lot of new material, and as usual, there's now a lot more provocative questions to address. There is clearly a strong commitment to this project, after all they were digging up until New Year's eve, and I know that just as important as the archaeology, that this group is very much committed to doing the right thing when it comes to public outreach and involvement. As Ken stated in his introductory comments, one of the goals of this project was not to attempt a telling of the only story possible, but to begin an important dialog with all of our help that might sharpen the analysis. I for one hope to participate in that dialog.

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Carol McDavid 1998