Disinterring the enslaved

Barbados (openDemocracy) – Archaeology has incredible powers of detection, but it suffers from emotional sterility. When we unearth the bones of the enslaved, we must feel their humanity through the science.

How can we engage with slavery from the past, how can we consider it in front of our eyes, bring the past to the present? Slavery’s aftermath is all around us, if we care to look, and listen. I’ve been immersed in the words and studies of archaeologists, anthropologists and osteologists, learning that for instance there has been three decades of research at the Newton Plantation in Barbados. A wealth of data and information that has kept archaeologists and scholars digging and re-digging, looking for clues about ‘slave life’.

We want to gain a better understanding on ‘the slave life’, the academics say, so human remains or human biology is uncovered and unearthed.

A previously undisturbed ‘slave’ cemetery has been dug up, not once but thrice. ‘What were they looking for?’ I found myself muttering. I could feel my impatience as yet another academic paper recounts in painstaking, minute detail the methodology used to scrape off the bones, the process for analysing teeth. And yet it becomes clear from the uncertainties and insecurities expressed in these papers that this is still about one scientist talking to another. The discourse about the ‘slave life’ remains resolutely academic. The concern of the archaeologist is how to share results with an audience of historical scholars; whose methodology is the most accurate? How can the methodology and techniques of one discipline be applied to another? How can this generate new perspectives on the slave life? The question keeps being repeated, like a recurrent itch.

We want to gain a better understanding on ‘the slave life’, the academics say, so human remains or human biology is uncovered and unearthed. Disarticulated bones are packed with care, in storage containers using acid free tissue or foam, bubble wrap and clear strong plastic bags which have to be at least 500 gauge thickness. Bag right hand bones separately to left hand bones. I have been learning the language. I have learnt that the teeth are the most durable bone of the human body, that this is what remains, and it is simply staggering to realise what can be read by them. But, but, but, my repetitive itch says, what has this got to do with now? What is the point of all this excavation, if we do not yield the lessons from it?

The teeth do not lie: fever lines, malocclusion, and hypoplesia tell us stories of ‘nutritional stress’, malnutrition and starvation.

Archaeologists, or rather scientists, I am coming to understand, are great prevaricators and qualifiers. I thought they dealt with facts and certainty, but I realise they stop short of absolutism. The skeletal remains may offer up information, data, but the scientist always holds back from the full stop. They leave gaps, everything qualified with the great ‘maybe’. What the bones yield is still proffered in possibility. The teeth do not lie: fever lines, malocclusion, and hypoplesia tell us stories of ‘nutritional stress’, malnutrition and starvation.

The ‘field negroes’, described as ‘emaciated slaves’ in some of those quaint, English, seventeenth-century travel diaries, cultivated small plots of land to augment a paltry diet of guinea corn and sometimes saltfish, which was never enough. Hurricanes, droughts and inflated trade prices meant the plantation management would skimp on rations, therefore between the elements and economics, malnutrition and starvation was commonplace for the enslaved worker. The practice of geophagy – eating earth – provided mineral quantities to compensate for the relative lack of minerals in their food. An ‘adaptive explanation’ is offered – besides being a cultural practice, this could also be about ‘hunger alleviation’. So less a case of taking your daily mineral supplement.

If we are to disinter our ancestors, we should justify the sacrifice.

Image Source: Pixabay

Image Source: Pixabay

What is missing in the academic, is the emotional life. The language is always removed, human beings are remains with identifiers, colour coded and a quantifiable sample in a vial. The academic language also gives away the fact that this is a western discipline; the gaze White European, dissecting the Other. Whereas in some indigenous cultures, the laying of bones is sacred. This is sacred earth that should not be disturbed. The academic peers through a looking glass. And there’s a code of practice that warns of destructive sampling: archaeologically-derived remains should not be regarded as a limitless resource, for testing methods of analysis. Repeated samples for the same study are considered poor practice, ‘_ensure the results justify the sacrifice_’. It seems to me that if we are to disinter our ancestors, we should justify the sacrifice. And that means to create a discourse that steps outside the leafy walls of academic establishments: a discourse that steps into the world where Black Lives don’t matter.

And yet as the teeth speak, the enslaved yield their narrative. I see that we are really not that removed in time. I can follow the threads of my own family history, watch them un-spool…among the remains are clay kaolin pipes, testified to by teeth with a habitual one sided clench. Tobacco and pipes were part of a reward system, for good behaviour. We reward a good slave with tobacco. The trail from West Africa is peppered with gifts of beads, buttons, guns and unhealthy habits. But the trail and thread leads to my grandmother, an avid pipe smoker. She would smoke sitting on the porch of a zinc roof house. She suffered respiratory illness and died in her sixties due to thrombosis. She lived in a valley, too far from town and the price of a medical doctor.

It feels so hard doing this project right now. As a Black woman, how can I disconnect from what the archaeologists have found. How can I talk about the enslaved life, without it feeling like a shared past, my past. I feel the weight of irony: to live as a slave was to be brutalised and dehumanised, and now there is more ‘care’ given to their bones than when they were alive. The bones do not lie. 500 gauge of thickness should not prevent us from seeing that human remains are about our collective humanity, our past. If we are to think of slavery in new ways, it should be about placing every one of us in the heart of the discourse, as equal participants, equal voices.

This report prepared by Jenny Davis for openDemocracy.