Barbara J. Heath. Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. vii + 81 pp. $12.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-1867-9.
Reviewed by Joshua D. Rothman (Department of History, University of Alabama)
Published on H-SHEAR (January, 2001)
Interpreting the Artifacts of a Slave Community
Interpreting the Artifacts of a Slave Community
In 1993, archaeologists at the museum now housing what was once Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation made an accidental discovery. While digging a series of routine test holes before the planting of some new trees, they uncovered the remains of what had once been a small dirt cellar. Filled with a wide array of artifacts ranging from buttons and nails to animal bones and beads, the cellar clearly indicated that human beings had once inhabited the site, but map research yielded no insight as to who might have lived there. Over the course of the next three archaeological seasons, excavations at what came to be called the "quarter site" revealed the "footprints" of three structures and their yards as well as more than twenty thousand artifacts dated to the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Cumulatively, the archaeological record strongly suggested that the site had housed part of Poplar Forest's enslaved African-American population between the 1790s and sometime in the 1810s.
In Hidden Lives, Barbara J. Heath uses the information gleaned from the quarter site in combination with the documentary record to piece together the experience of the slaves who lived at Poplar Forest and the community they forged. Poplar Forest, which Jefferson inherited upon the 1773 death of his father-in-law John Wayles, sits roughly ninety miles southwest of Jefferson's home plantation at Monticello. Because Jefferson sold land and reorganized his enslaved labor force frequently through the middle of the 1780s, Heath suggests that the slave population at Poplar Forest did not develop a stable community until sometime in the middle of the 1790s, at which point members of seven different families lived on the plantation. Many of these families were interrelated by marriage and kinship networks. Over time, these networks were further elaborated and extended from Poplar Forest to incorporate enslaved families living on plantations all across central Virginia.
Jefferson used slaves at Poplar Forest for diverse purposes. Slaves worked tobacco, wheat, and hemp fields, and raised cows, pigs, sheep, and horses. Men and women alike learned trades and became carpenters, smiths, and weavers. But Heath is more interested in how African Americans at Poplar Forest defined themselves, their families, their domestic spaces, and their leisure time than she is in how Jefferson defined them in his farm book. To that end, she turns to the archaeological record for clues.
Heath herself concedes that "much of the story of the African-American community living at Poplar Forest still remains buried in the ground" (66), and she makes no pretenses to offering a full account of slave life on the plantation. Still, some of the evidence is tantalizing for scholars looking to answer important questions about the daily lives of slaves. Higher quality ceramics were found in one structure than in another, for example, hinting perhaps at class differences within the slave community. All three structures had yards placed strategically so that the view from the nearby overseer's house was partially obscured, which may point to the ability of slaves to carve semi-private spaces out of the landscape. So too does the existence of the small cellars dug in the floor of one of the quarters. Found at slave sites across Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, these pits may have cultural origins in West Africa. The discovery of so many coins, buttons, glass beads, and buckles suggests the involvement of slaves in an informal economy and the importance they placed upon adorning otherwise drab wardrobes. Other artifacts like marbles and fragments of a writing slate hint at leisure activities for children and at literacy. The contents of garbage pits reveal information about how slaves supplemented the diet Jefferson offered them by hunting, trapping, and gathering. Numerous locks and keys found at the site may suggest that slaves used them to lock up their possessions and thus had semi-recognized rights to private property. One particularly fascinating discovery was the largest and most varied collection of stone pipes ever found in Virginia, and related artifacts indicate that African Americans at Poplar Forest manufactured pipes in addition to using them to smoke tobacco.
Heath's approach throughout Hidden Lives is to take objects found in the ground (and indeed, the impressions left in the ground itself) and to suggest not only how they may have been used, but to offer possibilities for their significance and their larger meanings for the lives of slaves and the slave community. In general, her interpretations are insightful, although the implications she sees in those interpretations sometimes invite questioning. Heath argues, for example, that although the documentary record reveals forms of resistance ranging from violence to running away to theft, "the archaeological record best reflects more subtle forms of day-to-day resistance to the dehumanizing influence of slavery" . She offers no explanation, however, of just how "resistance" is defined here. Is the simple reality that slaves had some independence of action to shape their own lives and landscapes and to collect items they could call their own a form of "resistance"? If, as Heath suggests, Jefferson recognized the rights of his slaves to property and some privacy , then to what extent exactly does the exercise of those rights constitute resistance? To ask this question is not to underestimate the significance of the evidence Heath presents, but rather to suggest the need for further elaboration of the point.
Occasionally, Heath's presentation also begs for more thorough historical contextualization of the archaeological evidence. We never learn, for example, just how many slaves there were at Poplar Forest in the period when the quarter site was inhabited. Moreover, Hidden Lives is amply illustrated and includes several maps, but we never see where exactly the slaves lived who were not housed in one of the three structures at the quarter site. Nor for that matter are we told just how many acres the plantation itself comprised. All of these issues would seem to be helpful if not critical in assessing the shape of the larger slave community at Poplar Forest.
These criticisms aside, Barbara Heath has offered us a valuable window into what is all too often the dark room of the material lives of slaves, and made an important contribution to understanding how slaves shaped and controlled the material world to meet their needs and desires. Reports of further discoveries and research at Poplar Forest ought to be eagerly anticipated.
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Joshua D. Rothman. Review of Heath, Barbara J., Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest.
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