On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains

2006 (J. S. Handler and F. W. Lange) “On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter. June.

An early colonial period church cemetery in Campeche, Mexico yielded the skeletal remains of persons who investigators identified as African born; some reports claimed these remains represent the earliest evidence of African slavery yet found in the New World. However, physical evidence in and of itself does not unequivocally demonstrate the social status of the people concerned. Persons of African descent in Campeche at this period could have been free or held other social statuses that were not chattel slaves. Whatever the case, the Campeche remains raise the issue of archaeological interpretations of social systems, in this case the social system of chattel slavery. In this article we reproduce excerpts from the final chapter of our 1978 book on plantation slavery in Barbados; we argue that archaeological remains alone cannot determine the presence of slavery and documentary data are needed to establish its existence.

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