African Diaspora Archaeology
Introduction and Definition
Archaeological investigations of African diasporas have expanded dramatically in number, diversity of research designs, and geographic scales over the last several decades. The term “diaspora” is typically used to address the dispersion of people to new locations as a result of hostile circumstances in the areas from which they departed or were abducted. Analysts have pursued a diverse array of perspectives in this period of growth for African diaspora archaeology. Projects have explored questions in spatial scales spanning the household, local, regional, interregional, and global.
Researchers undertaking interdisciplinary studies of African diaspora sites and communities will benefit by familiarity with the analyses of scholars in Black studies, such as Frederick Douglass, St. Claire Drake, W. E. B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Arturo Schomburg, Booker T. Washington, George Williams, Carter Woodson, and Malcolm X (e.g., Mullins 2008). The work of investigators of African diaspora communities is also aided by digital and internet-based databases. These include The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (Eltis et al. 2000) and the expanded Voyages database available online (Eltis and Halbert 2013), which provides information on 34,948 slave vessel voyages and the people captured in those operations of bondage (e.g., Eltis and Richardson 2008). The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, funded and maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (2017), presents archaeological data from numerous sites in North America and the Caribbean. Handler and Tuite (2015) and their colleagues maintain a substantial online database of historical images depicting details of the operations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impact on past lives. The African Diaspora Archaeology Network (n.d.) consists of numerous collaborating researchers who promote publications such as a quarterly newsletter and the peer-reviewed Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage (Taylor and Francis Press).
Key Issues/Current Debates
A remarkable variety of research questions have been addressed over the past several decades, often engaging with theoretical debates on subjects such as social group identity, agency, racism, power, class structures, ethnicity, and self-determination (Ogundiran 2008; Fennell 2011 provide overviews). In North America, the vast majority of archaeology projects related to African diaspora sites are conducted by archaeologists working in cultural resource management (CRM) settings. This tendency reflects the higher frequency with which sites of African diaspora heritage are impacted by disturbance due to new construction projects and resultant analysis through CRM procedures (e.g., Joseph 2004). These CRM archaeology projects contributed significantly to the development of African diaspora archaeology in the United States (e.g., Wheaton et al. 1983).
Some researchers advocate the compilation of detailed, contextual studies addressing dynamics at local and regional scales (e.g., Mullins 2006). Researchers also frequently implement investigative plans shaped in part by the interests of descendant communities (e.g., Agbe-Davies 2007 in Ogundiran and Falola 2007). Other analysts recommend a focus on the facets of racial ideologies and capitalist economies on a worldwide scale (e.g., Orser 1994; Mullins 2008).
This variety of research designs includes a focus on the operations of racial ideologies underlying economic structures (e.g., Orser 2007) and African descendants living and working in industrial settings (e.g., Shackel and Larsen 2000 in Delle et al. 2000). Researchers have also explored the ways in which facets of particular African cultures (such as the Asante, BaKongo, Igbo, and Yoruba) were related to continuing developments of cultural beliefs and practices at diaspora sites (e.g., Ferguson 1992). Many sites have yielded evidence of the material expressions of spirituality by African descendant people (e.g., Fennell 2003). The contours of ethnic group identities and new social networks (e.g., Wilkie 2000a; Ogundiran and Falola 2007 in Ogundiran and Falola 2007) as well as processes of ethnogenesis, syncretism, and creolization (e.g., Fennell 2007) have been examined in extensive studies.
Our knowledge of African diaspora histories has also been greatly enhanced by studies of mortuary traditions (e.g., McCarthy 2006 in Haviser and MacDonald 2006) and health-care practices (e.g., Cabak et al. 1995). Bioarchaeological investigations similarly provide detailed evidence of past lifeways, individual health conditions, and the impacts of enslavement on the physiologies of Africans and African descendants trapped in bondage (e.g., Mack and Blakey 2004). Diverse studies of diets, culinary practices, and consumer choices provide evidence on multiple time periods and spatial scales (e.g., Wilkie 2000b). Investigators have explored the subject of gender dynamics within African diaspora communities and seek to implement feminist critiques of research designs (e.g., Battle-Baptiste 2011). Extensive studies have examined the degree of impacts of particular African pottery-making and ornament traditions on ceramic production at diaspora sites (e.g., Ferguson 1992; Deetz 1993; Singleton and Bograd 2000 in Delle et al. 2000; Hauser 2007 in Ogundiran and Falola 2007).
Other investigations have concentrated on instances of self-determination, resistance against subjugation, and the creation of “maroon” communities (e.g., Weik 2004; Agorsah 2006 in Haviser and MacDonald 2006). Archaeological studies have focused on such dynamics of communities founded by escaped bonds people called “palenques” in Cuba and “quilombos” in Brazil (e.g., Orser and Funari 2001; La Rosa Corzo 2003). The operations of escape networks combating slavery in North America, often referred to as facets of an “underground railroad,” have received increasing attention by archaeologists and landscape analysts as well (e.g., Ginsburg 2007; Delle and Shellenhamer 2008). Studies of spatial distributions and the ways people shaped and perceived the surrounding landscape have traversed scales from the household and yard, to neighboring plantations, to community and region (e.g., Handler and Lange 1978; Delle 1998; Battle-Baptiste 2007 in Ogundiran and Falola 2007; Chan 2007 in Ogundiran and Falola 2007).
Much of the work in African diaspora archaeology has focused on sites in the Americas and Caribbean. A growing body of work addresses diasporas throughout the Indian Ocean region, Middle East, and portions of Asia (Walz and Brandt 2006 in Haviser and MacDonald 2006; de Jayasuriya Silva and Angenot 2008). In addition, an increasing collection of historical archaeology studies of locations in Africa impacted by the trans-Atlantic slave trade presents excellent potentials for comparative analyses in the future (e.g., Hall 2000; Kelly 2004 in Reid and Lane 2004; Schmidt 2006; Ogundiran and Falola 2007).
This brief survey of research questions and methods in African diaspora archaeology illustrates the remarkable breadth and diversity of the field. Future work provides great promise for comparative and synthetic analyses of sites spanning the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Rapid advances in bioarchaeological methods, DNA studies, and stable isotope analyses have the potential to provide increasing data on direct connections between populations across space and time. Ongoing developments in spatial modeling, remote sensing, accessibility of aerial and satellite data, and complex mapping programs will also enhance landscape and spatial studies. Researchers in African diaspora archaeology pursue these state-of-the-art advances while also maintaining close ties with the interests and questions advanced by members of African descendant communities.
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