African Diaspora Archaeology studies people of African descent in the Americas and elsewhere. This research began in mid-20th century on the sites of enslaved and liberated communities. Today it is one of the fastest growing study areas in the archaeology of the modern world. In this lecture series, Professor Theresa Singleton discusses this developing archaeological discipline using her own projects as case studies beginning with her introduction to diaspora studies as a graduate student, to her current research on self-liberated and other free communities.
Presented by Professor Theresa Singleton PhD FSA
Theresa is Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University, New York, USA, and the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, at University of Cambridge, 2021-22. She was also the Curator of Historical Archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution, 1988-2000. Her areas of expertise are African Diasporas, Slavery and Plantations, Museums, Southern United States, and the Caribbean.
Her most recent book, Slavery Behind the Wall, was published in 2015. In 2014, the Society for Historical Archaeology awarded her the J. C. Harrington Medal for her lifetime contributions to Archaeology.
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Overview of African Diaspora Archaeology
This first lecture provides a historical overview to studies in African Diaspora Archaeology. It examines various sites enslaved peoples, slave runaways, and free blacks occupied, and the artefacts recovered from them. Theresa also briefly discusses her career path as it related to this research.
Gullah-Geechee Archaeology at Butler Island
Theresa’s first major project was undertaken at Butler Island, a 19th-century rice plantation about 80km south of Savannah, Georgia, USA. Gullah-Geechee refers to African American communities who live in coastal South Carolina and Georgia and are descendants of the enslaved people who worked on plantations like Butler Island. They are known today for their language (Gullah), crafts, and musical performances.
Digging through Museum Collections
Theresa has worked in museums for 18 years, and at each one she found artefacts associated with African Americans that had received little or no attention prior to her interest in them. Theresa conducted research on several of these artefacts primarily for museum exhibitions. In this lecture, she will highlight a few of these “collection finds” and discuss their significance in the study of African American life.
Revisiting Gullah-Geechee Archaeology and Heritage
In 2008, Theresa was invited to participate in a conference on the Gullah-Geechee of Georgia that provided her with the opportunity to update her research but also reconnect to members of the Gullah-Geechee community. Since that time, she is regularly consulted on heritage issues that pertain to the preservation of Butler Island and related sites that are now threatened by redevelopment.
A Serendipitous Turn to Cuban Slavery
An unexpected opportunity to travel to Cuba presented itself while Theresa was working at the Smithsonian that ultimately led to developing an archaeological project at a former coffee plantation with a unique slave settlement that was fully enclosed within a tall masonry wall. Undertaking this research project turned Theresa’s understanding of slavery on its head as well as broadened her understanding of the Afro-Latin American Diaspora.
Beyond Slavery—Sites of Liberation
While researching Cuban slavery, Theresa became interested in those who fled slavery. Most of them hid in caves and other secluded places and often relied on enslaved people for assistance in harbouring them. This led her to begin a project in Dominican Republic where some of the earliest slave runaway settlements were established. While doing this research, she learned that some of these runaway settlements were granted their freedom and became Free Black Towns. This ongoing project is described in this lecture.
Q&A and Vote of Thanks
Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, presented a Vote of Thanks to Theresa for her Rhind Lectures.
Questions & Answers
A session of Questions and Answers was held online in June 2022 after the final lecture, but it wasn’t possible to fit in all the queries. Those submitted and not answered are tackled here: