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by Kenneth L. Brown, Ph.D.

Why this site is important to understanding the history of African Americans in this country

from Brown, Kenneth L. and Doreen C. Cooper, Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community". (4)

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A couple of issues raised at the beginning of this paper can now be addressed. Specifically, some of the issues related to the archaeological definition of ethnicity, "African retentions", and African-American acculturation and adaptation within the context of the agricultural system of the South can be explored. First, the discovery of ethnicity and African retentions will come from historical archaeologists systematically investigating artifact context without a priori definitions of artifact function and use. The associational context of that portion of the Jordan Plantation discussed here has been highly preserved. While such a situation may be rare – indeed some reviewers have stated "unique", it can still be employed to demonstrate an important issue within historical archaeology. This issue is that of assigning function and meaning to artifacts. The pronounced tendency among historical archaeologists is to make such assignments from the viewpoint of "cultural descendants.". In such a situation, documents and acquired "knowledge" of artifact function and historical context define both the function and meaning of items found in the archaeological record. Such a view is static at best and unscientific at worst. For all archaeologists, the assignment of function and meaning requires the excavation of sites in which the associational context has been preserved on some or all of the sites. It may well be that such contexts are rare on extant plantation sites. If so, then historical archaeologists will be limited in their ability to reconstruct behavior in slave and tenant farmer communities independent of historical documents. Associational context provides the data necessary for the reconstruction of individual, small group, and community activities, statuses, roles, and changes within each of these. Open community deposits, e.g., general site middens, trash dumps, and under-house deposits, and so forth, do not permit these types of questions to be researched. Such community deposits are the result of activities of use and disposal of all of the inhabitants of the site, human as well as nonhuman. Archaeologists have no effective method to "control" these deposits and factor out the actual depositional agents.

Second, the question of the definition of function and meaning directly affects the way historical archaeologists understand the development of culture. As the artifactual evidence from the Jordan Plantation demonstrates, the material culture employed and deposited at the plantation was almost solely of European-American origin and had function and meaning within that context. When the material culture was employed within the slave and tenant farming community contexts, however, some portion of it acquired distinctly different meanings and use. Questions raised by archaeologists concerning ethnicity and the definition of acculturation and adaptational patterns and processes involves sets of behaviors, not single artifactual differences. The point here is that individuals and groups can, and do, select material items and invest them with certain beliefs and symbols. The cultural origin of the material items represents only one part in a group’s consideration of function and meaning. Within American slavery and tenancy, the differential use and manipulation of certain of the dominant culture’s material objects may likely have been the rule rather than the exception, in which case such behavior might aid in the explanation of some of the variation noted in the African-American and European-American "culture" within the United States. Definition and meaning of objects of material culture, as well as acceptance, rejection, and modification of ideas, behavioral patterns, and material items, are processes subject to variation depending on the background and interaction of those involved. Traditionally, historians and historical archaeologists have looked at the development of African-American culture as a process of acceptance, modification, or rejection of European-American culture. However, just as clearly, this has not been an entirely "one-way street". In order to investigate this interaction more fully, archaeologists must look for and extensively excavate associational contexts within slave and tenant communities throughout the South. Only through the comparisons of such data can one begin to talk about acculturation processes, the retention of so-called African behavioral patterns, and the definition of ethnicity. Further, such comparisons should help to define the amount of interplay between aspects of European-American and African-American culture in the evolution of both.

Finally, if historical archaeologists wish to utilize archaeology to provide new insights into the cultural evolution of Africans into African-Americans, detailed, fine-scale artifact analyses must be employed. Such analyses may lead to the discovery of ethnicity, African retentions, and the acculturation and adaptational processes. These analyses must include the testing of ethnographic analogies derived from African and African-American sources. European-American sources for behavioral interpretation should be expected to be somewhat different from African and African-American ones, at least until they can be demonstrated to explain more of the data derived from historical archaeological research. Africans and African-Americans may often be "invisible" in written history, but through carefully constructed archaeological research, they do not have to remain that way.

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