Introduction to the Archaeology of African American Life

What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word archaeology? Dangerous races through tombs? Fights in the jungle? Glittering jewels and golden statues? Movies and television shows have shaped our images—often inaccurately. They portray archaeologists as adventurers who revive ancient mummies, find lost treasures or unlock mystical secrets.

Archaeologists do study skeletons (and sometimes well-preserved bodies) of people who lived in the past, but they are trying to learn about how these people lived and died, not to bring them back to life. And they do find a variety of treasures and the answers to puzzling questions. What archaeologists consider treasures, however, are not usually priceless gems or ancient works of art, but rather the objects that individuals made and used every day or on special occasions. When studied carefully, these objects, or artifacts, provide many clues about how people lived and how their lives changed over time. The places, or sites, where artifacts are found also hold important clues about the past. They may contain the foundations of houses or other buildings, and the remains of fences, ditches, roadbeds or buried gardens that help archaeologists reconstruct what a settlement might have looked like.

Archaeology is the study of past human societies through physical remains (artifacts or buildings) and spaces (groups of buildings or landscapes) that individuals or groups created or used long ago. Understanding context—the relationships of artifacts with the site they are part of—is the key to what archaeologists do. In fact, archaeologists are more like detectives than treasure hunters. They use physical evidence to solve mysteries. One mystery that archaeologists are currently trying to solve is how Africans who were brought to America in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s lived, how they changed to become African Americans, and how they changed Virginia in the process.

Meets Virginia SOLs: Language 5.1, 5.2, 5.3

Housing and Artifacts Exercises

These exercises provide students with the opportunity to analyze real archaeological and documentary data. They will use this information to discover what types of houses enslaved and free African Americans lived in during the period from circa 1700 to 1900, and to learn about some of the objects that the residents of these houses might have owned.

Information is provided for three sites in Virginia where archaeologists found evidence of houses occupied by enslaved and free people and artifacts associated with those houses. The artifacts are based on excavated examples found at each of the sites. Some of the resource material is shared between both the housing and artifact exercise, and some is specific to each.

Foodways Games

The African-American Archaeology Resource Kit includes a set of cards designed to introduce students to African-American foodways and the methods that archaeologists use to learn about them. Information is presented in an historical overview and in a series of playing cards. Students use these materials to learn about the types of foods that enslaved people received as provisions. They also learn about foods and food-related artifacts that free and enslaved people provided for themselves through hunting, fishing, gathering, gardening, poultry raising, and purchase. In addition to the content provided, the cards promote reading skills through pictures and text and ask students to classify information and assess values.

Meets SOLs:

English 4.1a, b and e; 4.2a-c; 4.3a and b
Science 4.4a, 4.5f, 4.8b
English 5.1a-c; 5.2a, 5.3b and c; 5.6a,c,g

To receive a copy of the kit contact DHR's Chief Curator, Division of State Archaeology