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VCU Archaeology

Slavery and the African American Experience in Virginia from 1619–1861

by Bernard K. Means

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day in the U.S.–a federal holiday designed to acknowledge the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. It is the last MLK day of the nation’s first African American president, and it is also a day when noted civil rights leader John Lewis is being attacked by the president-elect. To say that the state in which I live (Virginia) and the city in which I teach (Richmond) have a contentious history with race would be a vast understatement.  Race-based slavery in the U.S. is usually traced to Jamestown in 1619, Richmond was the capital for the Confederate states that fought to preserve slavery, and after the U.S. Civil War, Virginia fought the Civil Rights movement, including resisting the desegregation of education and forbidding inter-racial  marriage. Virginia even resisted acknowledging MLK day for years, then “compromised” by combining it with a state holiday celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, before, after seven years, separating Lee-Jackson-King Day into Lee-Jackson Day and MLK Day.

Virginia is also a state where many of the founders of what became the U.S. lived, most of whom had enslaved workers who cared for them while the fought for, and founded, a nation devoted to freedom and liberty–but not for all.  Many of the places associated with the early presidents of the U.S. are today cultural  heritage locations visited by tens of thousands each year.  Many of these places also have archaeologists who have worked diligently to uncover and tell the story of these enslaved laborers.  Since its inception, the Virtual Curation Laboratory has devoted some of its efforts to 3D scan and 3D print artifacts from enslaved contexts, notably at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. These 3D printed replicas are increasingly being integrated into public education programs at their respective places of origin.


3D scanning a buckle from an enslaved context at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Starting this year, the Virtual Curation Laboratory is joining with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’s on-line Encyclopedia Virginia on a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities project entitled “Slavery and the African American Experience in Virginia from 1619–1861.” Our contribution in the Virtual Curation Laboratory will be to provide digital animations and 3D models from items we have already 3D scanned to enhance existing and new Encyclopedia entries. And, we will also target 3D scanning of additional items from pre-Emancipation Virginia contexts in the coming years.


3D scanning a chicken bone at VMNH while Dr. Moore examines part of the zooarchaeology type collection.

Toward that effort, I spent part of the first week of 2017 3D scanning artifacts from enslaved contexts at two different locations.  While at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) 3D scanning Ice Age animals, I took some time to work with VMNH Curator of Archaeology Dr. Elizabeth Moore to also 3D scan some animal bones from quarters for enslaved workers at Oak Hill Plantation Slave Quarter in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Salvage excavations were conducted at the brick slave quarters at this site under the direction of Randy Lichtenberger of Hurt & Proffitt Incorporated and with funding from the Virginia Department of Historic Places Threatened Sites program.  The brick slave quarters were partially destroyed for a Discovery Channel television show called Rebel Gold (Lichtenberger 2016:6). As a zooarchaeologist, Dr. Moore is studying the faunal remains recovered from the salvage excavations, and I took time to 3D scan pig and chicken bones that represented part of the diet of the enslaved workers at Oak Hill Plantation.

The second location I 3D scanned the first week of 2017 was at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Here, I also 3D scanned bone related to the diet of the Washington Family’s enslaved servants (chicken and sheep), as well as two more unique objects: a cut cowry shell and a carnelian bead.  The cowry shell was cut to be used as money by the enslaved servants and the shell itself is from the eastern Indian Ocean. The carnelian bead was made from a mineral likely mined in India and may have been associated with a conjuror.

The Virtual Curation Laboratory looks forward to working with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities on a project that seems more relevant than ever.

Reference cited

Lichtenberger, Randy

2016 Draft Interim Report on Excavation at the Oak Hill Plantation Slave Quarter (44PY0440-0005),
Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Threatened Sites Program. Submitted by Hurt & Proffitt Incorporated to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Richmond.



2 thoughts on “Slavery and the African American Experience in Virginia from 1619–1861

  1. Thanks for this report, Bernard. I’m looking forward reading the results of the slavery project.

    Posted by Kevin Kiernan | January 16, 2017, 11:25 am

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