Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Literary archaeology: exploring the lived environment of the slave

Archaeology and creative writing are both powerful tools for understanding the past lives of slaves. What would happen if we brought the disciplines together?

Josie Gill
21 August 2016

Slave Trader's Ledger. Special Collections at Wofford College//

How can we know what it was like to be enslaved? When it comes to the transatlantic slave trade, there is no simple or straightforward answer. Historical documentation is dominated by the perspectives of slave owners and colonisers, the experience and voice of the enslaved sometimes glimpsed through court proceedings or oral history. We might turn to slave narratives – autobiographical accounts that slaves gave of their experience – some of which have been dramatised for film or television, such as 12 Years a Slave. However the novelist Toni Morrison cautions against an unquestioning acceptance of these accounts in her essay The Site of Memory.

Morrison argues that slaves’ interior lives were excised from the stories they told, their narratives having had their objective and emotionally restrained style dictated by the popular taste of a slave society that did not wish to read of the horrors of slavery: “In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it”, she writes, “they were silent about many things”. Morrison views her task, as a contemporary writer, as being to access that interior life, “to rip the veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’”. She describes her approach to this task as “a kind of literary archaeology”, an imaginative excavation of the past and a reconstruction of past lives from what remains.

But what if we were to go beyond archaeology as metaphor for this process? What if the remains that writers worked with were to include, in addition to historical fragments, archaeological discoveries and human remains? Writers are not the only group of people trying to get a deeper understanding of how the enslaved experienced their lives. Archaeologists excavate and examine the bodies of slaves in order to gain insights into slave health and wellbeing. The bones of the enslaved can give archaeologists information about where slaves were born, their diet, traumatic injuries they sustained, the movement of individuals from early childhood to adulthood, weaning practices and other cultural practices. While historians are increasingly drawing upon such archaeological information in their studies of slavery, there hasn’t been much communication between archaeologists and literary writers, who are both seeking to do the same thing; to understand slavery from the perspective of the enslaved.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project Literary Archaeology: Exploring the Lived Environment of the Slave was set up to address how archaeological scientists, literary scholars and creative writers might influence and inform each other’s approaches to understanding slavery. We are interested in exploring whether literary representations of slavery can provoke new questions in archaeological science and, conversely, how an engagement with skeletal remains and scientific data might inform literary representations of slave lives and literary critical forms of inquiry.

Concentrating on two slave burial grounds, one in Barbados and one in Gran Canaria, two scientific archaeologists and seven writers from the Bristol-based collective Our Stories Make Waves have come together to exchange ideas and perspectives on slavery. The following articles by two of the writers and one of the archaeologists involved represent individual reflections on the project and on the process of working across disciplinary boundaries. The conversation is ongoing, but the project is already producing some interesting and unexpected questions about the role of emotion in science and about the interpretation of scientific data and language in literature. As the following pieces attest, thinking about the lives of slaves is never easy, but bringing art and science together to do so can enhance the ways in which we remember and commemorate those lives.

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