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VCU Archaeology

African American History and Culture in the Virtual Curation Laboratory

by Bernard K. Means

Today, September 24, 2016, marks the official dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Although I am unable to be there for this historic occasion, I thought I would highlight a few of the artifacts held in trust by the Virtual Curation Laboratory from enslaved and free African American contexts in Virginia and a free African American context in pre-Emancipation Pennsylvania.  Some of these models are available at our companion Sketchfab site, and a large number of these can be downloaded for 3-D printing and the creation of personal museums of African American history and culture, or used by schools. These models come from our partners in preserving the past, including Jamestown and a number of sites associated with the founding fathers.

Jamestown Rediscovery in Jamestown, Virginia

The first documented individual enslaved in what is now the United States was recorded in 1640 at Jamestown, being a runaway indentured servant by the name of John Punch. Indentured servants from Africa were present at Jamestown from 1619 (see African Americans at Jamestown for more details). I asked Merry Outlaw, Curator of Collections at Jamestown Rediscovery, what types of artifacts they might have in their collection associated with the first enslaved Americans. An iron hoe from a late 17th century context was likely used by an enslaved American and thus is one of the oldest artifacts associated with chattel slavery in what is now the United States.


George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia

When George Washington’s father died, George inherited the property now known as George Washington’s Ferry Farm in 1743 at the age of 11, where he had been living since the age of 6. His mother, Mary, managed the property, including its enslaved Americans, until George came of age.  Extensive block excavations uncovered the foundations of the house, as well as an extensive work area used by the enslaved servants behind the house. Archaeologist and Small Finds analyst Laura Galke has investigated the large number of wig hair curlers found at this site, as documented in an earlier blog you can find here. This small, seemingly mundane artifact type speaks to the extremes of status in Colonial America.  Wigs were often the single most expensive item a proper gentleman wore, yet here at Ferry Farm they were maintained by the people with the lowest social status, enslaved Americans.


During the American Civil War, the Union Army occupied the site of Ferry Farm and thousands of African Americans crossed to freedom at the site. Abraham Lincoln even visited the troops here in the summer of 1862. There are numerous Civil War objects and features excavated at Ferry Farm, including this U.S. Model 1861 Springfield Rifled Musket lock recovered archaeologically a associated with the Union army’s occupation of this location during the American Civil War. Paul Nasca, who conserved this item, noted that  “failure of the main spring is the reason why the lock was discarded.”


George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Mount Vernon, Virginia

George Washington lived the latter part of his life and eventually died at Mount Vernon. During his lifetime, he managed his large estates through the labor of his enslaved Americans.  Over the last five years, the Virtual Curation Laboratory has 3D scanned a number of items from contexts associated with enslaved workers at Mount Vernon.  This summer,Linda Powell, ‎Director of Interpretation atMount Vernon, asked that we 3D scan items recovered from the “House for Families.” The “House for Families” housed the enslaved workers at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I detailed this 3D scanning effort here. We created a set of 3D printed replicas that will be used for interpretive and public outreach programs, especially after the new exhibit, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernonopens October 1, 2016. One of the items we 3D scanned was this raccoon baculum that was incised to worn as a pendant.


Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in Forest, Virginia

We have only scanned a few items to date from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest that were recovered archaeologically from enslaved contexts. One such item was a fragment of daub with finger impressions that we scanned in their archaeology laboratory. According to Jenn Ogborne, the Archaeology Laboratory Supervisor at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, “The daub is from the Tomahawk quarter farm at Poplar Forest, specifically in the plowzone above a two-room structure defined by postmolds, with a subfloor pit in both rooms. There are two other structures nearby. It was likely occupied about 1790 to 1812 (when Jefferson had the occupants moved to another location).”

James Madison’s Montpelier in Montpelier Station, Virginia

The largest quantity of artifacts from enslaved contexts that we have 3D scanned is from James Madison’s Montpelier.  Most of these are on our Sketchfab site and can be freely downloaded. One of the interns who helped with scanning items from this archaeological site is now Virginia Commonwealth University alumnae Michelle Taylor.  Michelle actually did archaeology at Montpelier, and later learned that she was a member of the descendant community of Madison’s enslaved Americans, as documented in a Washington Post article. One artifact that speaks to more than life as an enslaved laborer is this iron jaw harp. The jaw harp is a musical instrument played by placing the frame against one’s teeth or lips and plucking a reed, often of metal, that is missing from this conserved specimen.


Tenth Street First African Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Tenth Street First African Baptist Church was established in 1809 and the first meeting house was built in 1810.  The congregation was forced to sell the property in 1822 and many in the city forgot this church existed at this location until it was investigated archaeologically in the early 1990s. Several artifacts were 3D scanned from collections now at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. This doll head shows a woman wearing a hat and was scanned by now VCU alumnae Crystal Castleberry as part of her research project examining pre-Emancipation free African American sites.


Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia

Late last year, I made two trips to the National Park Service’s Museum Resource Center (MRCE) with Laura Galke, Small Finds Analyst and Field Director for George Washington’s Ferry Farm. She was researching colonoware from Manassas National Battlefield Park. Colonoware is a low-fired earthen ware that is associated in some areas with enslaved Americans, and this is certainly true of Manassas.  I scanned a number of smoking pipes and vessel fragments, such as the one shown here.


I also 3D scanned a quartz arrow point and a quartz crystal found in a ritual pit outside the chimney of a post-Emancipation African American household.



Where Do We Go From Here

Over the coming months, I am working with interns (especially Jessica Evans) in the Virtual Curation Laboratory to develop teaching kits around certain themes, including African Americans pre- and post-Emancipation. We are creating a web site devoted to these teaching kits, and the web site will include lesson ideas as well as links to downloadable 3D digital artifact models that can be freely 3D printed. And, we will expand the number of pre-and post-Emancipation contexts from which we have artifacts, including newer partnerships with the Richmond-based American Civil War Museum and also the Virginia Historical Society.

Update: Shortly after I posted this blog, this very relevant Washington Post story was posted: “Can a thorough, thoughtful museum speak to a new racist age?” by Philip Kennicott



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