Since 1971 scores of archaeological sites and hundreds of thousands of artifacts associated with Chesapeake slavery have been excavated. Most of this fieldwork has been accomplished by the research arms of history museums hoping to add concrete details to a sketchy picture of slave life derived from documents, and by cultural resource managers intent on salvaging archaeological data from destruction by modern development.
The information gleaned has been put to good use in educational venues, where it has served to enlarge historical memory to include slave life (Kelso 1997) and to guide accurate museum reconstructions of the vanished physical environments in which slaves lived and worked (Chappell 1989, 1999). However, successful scholarly applications have been more limited. Despite demand for synthetic analysis from archaeologists and especially social historians (e.g. Walsh 1997, Morgan 1998), recent work is still limited to site-specific treatments of archaeological data, accompanied by speculations about relationships with larger regional trends outlined by social historians using the documentary record.
Although the causes of this situation are complex, one of the most important issues is the difficulty workers now face in gaining access to archaeological data in a form that makes quantitative comparisons among sites possible. Most of the detailed evidence required to build convincing synthetic studies is buried in field notes, finds lists, and artifact storage boxes, scattered in archaeology labs around the region. The apparent exception proves the rule. The only comprehensive analyses of archaeological evidence that use systematic comparisons among sites are architectural in nature (Neiman 1998, Samford 1996). The explanation for this anomaly is telling. Unlike the complex and multidimensional content of a ceramic or faunal assemblage, a house plan is easily distilled on a single measured drawing.
The lack of readily accessible comparative data hobbles archaeological research into slavery in the Chesapeake. The unavoidable focus on single sites makes large-scale temporal and regional variation invisible. It also hinders the objective evaluation of hypotheses about the meaning and historical significance of variation in the archaeological record at individual sites. Regional studies on slave quarter sites are essential, however, to building a comprehensive understanding of how enslaved Africans and their descendents lived in the Americas.
DAACS is an effort to alleviate these problems. By making readily available a large and continually expanding corpus of well-organized data, conforming to a single standard, DAACS should catalyze inter-site comparative analysis that has previously been impossible.
The needs that the archive serves and analytical possibilities that it opens up are widely recognized. There is no better evidence for this than the enthusiasm with which archaeologists working in the region have agreed to make their excavated artifacts and field records available for this project, to collaborate with us in the design of the archive and its component databases, and to contribute to ongoing research efforts.
The archive project is part of a larger commitment on the part of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and its research wing, the International Center for Jefferson Studies, where the Archaeology Department is housed, to the study of the African-American experience at Monticello and throughout the South from 1700 to 1850 (TJMF 1997).