The fundamental purpose of the archive is to convert archaeological artifacts and data into evidence that can be brought to bear on important questions in the cultural, social, and economic history of the Chesapeake. Slavery powerfully shaped nearly all aspects of life in the region. The archaeological record is the physical remnant of dynamic strategic relationships among slave owners and slaves. It offers uniquely systematic evidence about change over time in the conflicting strategies owners and slaves used to further their own and their family’s interests. Strategic outcomes were affected by a variety of circumstances, most importantly slave demography and the niche that plantations occupied in the Atlantic economy and variation in slave work routines required for economic success (Berlin 1998).
The time period spanned by sites in the archive is a demographic and economic watershed in the history of the Chesapeake. The first half of the 18th century witnessed the massive forced migration of enslaved Africans into the region. Natural reproduction from the beginning of the century and slowing importation rates after 1750 had profound demographic implications. In the early 18th century, most adult Chesapeake slaves were African born and the few kin ties that existed were between adults and children (Kulikoff 1986). By the end of the century, nearly all of their successors were native-born and kin ties spanned several Creole generations. The period also witnessed fundamental alterations in the regional economy. Diversification and intensification in the agricultural sector accompanied a transition from staple production of tobacco to a mixed farming regime based around wheat. There were also tentative forays into slave-based manufacturing (Morgan 1998). These changes resulted in greater task differentiation in work regimens and perhaps an increase in the ability of slaves to negotiate for marginal improvements in their lives.
The archive will allow researchers to explore these trends and their effects on the everyday lives of enslaved people. Of particular interest are patterns of change and variation in the amount of influence slaves had over their living conditions (Neiman 1997a). How much control did slaves have over the size and composition of their residential groups? How did enslaved Africans manage to establish and nurture families and later, multi-generational kin networks? As task differentiation increased, can we see the emergence of task-based residential grouping?
A second cluster of historical issues revolves around consumer goods and the extent of slave participation in a burgeoning “consumer revolution” that swept the Atlantic world in the late 17th and 18th centuries (Carson 1994). How variable was slaves’ access to costly ceramic and glass vessels, or fashionable clothing accoutrements like buttons, buckles, and beads (Heath 1997, 2000, 2004)? What were the payoffs to slaves with such access and did they change over time? To what extent did the trajectories of change in preferred styles and uses of consumer goods diverge among slaves occupying different work roles within a single plantation, among slaves on different plantations, or among slaves, free white workers, and slave owners?
A third set of key questions revolves around subsistence (Bowen 1996). What were the determinants of variation in the quality of domestic mammals that owners gave their slaves? What set of social and environmental factors influenced slave mobility across the landscape, as measured by the habitats of wild species that they foraged? How did the extent to which slaves relied upon wild resources vary with the quality of the provisioned diet and the amount of geographical mobility they were allowed? What were the ecological and social determinants of species preferences among enslaved foragers?
Finally, archaeologists and historians have been intrigued by the possibility of identifying African cultural and religious influences in material remains of the period (Ferguson 1992, Franklin 1997, Samford 1999, Sobel 1987). Nearly all categories of material culture excavated from Chesapeake slave sites have been suggested as belonging to arenas of traditional African practice, from patterning in the processing of animal bones (Bowen 1996) to unusual contextual associations of artifacts (Samford 1996), to techniques used in the construction of locally made ceramics (Deetz 1988). The archive will make it possible to document shared similarities among sites that might betray common African tradition or the later emergence of a common African-American social identity in Chesapeake. It will also reveal the extent of regional variation in similarities that might be correlated with the African origins of those enslaved (Gomez 1998).
The data that DAACS makes available will allow these and numerous other historical questions to be addressed in a systematic way for the first time.