Reflections on the African Burial Ground Project

For the past few years, both archivists and archeologists from Northeast Museum Services Center (NMSC) have been working on a very special collection that is curated by the African Burial Ground National Monument (AFBG).

The site of the AFBG National Monument was once a 6.6-acre burial ground in lower Manhattan where both free and enslaved Africans were buried between the years of 1690 and 1794.  This burial ground was lost due to landfill and development, but was rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a Federal office building[i].  Artifacts associated directly with the 419 burials were reinterred with the human remains in 2003.  These artifacts included items of personal adornment like beads, jewelry, and buttons; possible grave goods like shells, coins, and pipes; and decorative tacks and other coffin hardware.

Image

Bead associated with Burial 340.

Because the actual burials and associated artifacts were reinterred, the AFBG archeology collection that is here at NMSC contains only the non-burial related artifacts that came from the fill above the graves. The African Burial Ground Project Records (1989-2009) consist of roughly 175 linear feet of textual records, photographic and audio-visual materials, and electronic records. The records do not contain textual records from the eighteenth century recording the names of enslaved and freed Africans who were laid to rest in the Burial Ground.

The AFBG collection was cataloged and analyzed prior to arriving at NMSC.  NMSC staff is simply entering these artifacts into the electronic database, Interior Collections Management System (ICMS), used by the National Park Service so that the collection is fully documented according to NPS standards.

This project has reminded us of the importance of having both records and artifacts from a site and why preservation of these cultural resources is so important.  Here are two accounts from NMSC staff that have had the privilege of working with the African Burial Ground collection.

Margaret Welch, Archivist, NMSC:

These records reminded me afresh that one of our goals as archivists is to preserve the evidence.  The human remains that, when studied, revealed their life experiences, and the artifacts used to adorn the graves were reinterred and thus no are longer available for research.  Therefore their images, both analog and digital, must be kept permanently so that future generations may study them.

Articles documenting the community’s reactions to the Burial Ground Project were gathered and cataloged; many are from grassroots newspapers which are now available in only a few repositories while the articles from the major newspapers are online but require a fee.

The most ephemeral subjects may be the presentations and events, for example, the multi-day “Rites of Ancestral Return” held in 2003 for honoring the reburial of the remains.  Tape and digital videos and still photography shot by professionals and amateurs complement the articles and programs to give a rich sense of the ceremonies.

Our charge now and in the future is to keep the paper and photo prints stable through protective enclosures and a secure environment while maintaining the viability of digital materials through copying and migration.  This is how we archivists keep interest and knowledge in the Burial Ground alive.

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Pallbearers with coffin at Wall Street Pier during the Rites of Ancestral Return, 4 October 2003.

Jessica Costello, Museum Specialist (Archeology), NMSC:

 

From the time I started processing the African Burial Ground archeology collection, what has struck me about this collection is the extent to which the artifacts do not reflect the lives of those buried at the site.  The collection contains artifacts from the soil used to fill in the grave shafts dug to accommodate the burials.   The grave-fill artifacts tell us not about the people who were laid to rest in the burial ground, but rather about the life of the city that was developing contemporaneously.  Of course, free and enslaved blacks were an integral part of the evolution of New York City during this time.  The ceramics, glass, and faunal remains from the grave fill, however, do not reflect the unique elements of the black community’s cultural heritage, but rather the general material culture trends and ways of life in 17th-century and 18th-century New York.

 

By the 18th century, what began as a Dutch frontier settlement in 1624 was growing into a thriving English port city.  Specifically, many of the artifacts from the grave fill in the African Burial Ground represent refuse produced by bustling industries that operated adjacent to the burial ground.  The collection is comprised in large part of stoneware kiln furniture fragments and kiln wasters produced by the Crolius pottery, which expert Meta Janowitz has called among “New York City’s best-known artisan potters.”  The area utilized by New York’s black population for burials was on the outskirts of the city, an area also deemed suitable for industries like potteries, tanneries, and slaughterhouses that required space and produced unpleasant odors.  These industries deposited their trash on land that was then used as fill for graves at the African Burial Ground.

The artifacts from the fill, however, do not provide much insight into the free and enslaved blacks who were interred at the Burial Ground.  Because the archeology component only contains the grave-fill artifacts, and not the artifacts that were meaningful to the people buried there, it is imperative that the archeology and archives elements of this collection remain intellectually linked.  The archives contains the many scholarly reports written about the site, the excavation field notes and photographs and laboratory analysis of the burials and associated artifacts. Without the information preserved in the archives, the archeology collection tells an incomplete story.

The future:

The discovery of the African Burial Ground, and the recovery and analysis of the artifacts found there, have provided an opportunity to recognize, study, and remember the men, women, and children laid to rest at 290 Broadway.  Their history is no longer buried.  By working to preserve, document, and make accessible the artifacts and archives that tell their story, we can ensure that it will never be forgotten!

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About Alicia P

Alicia is the Curator of Archeology Collections at NMSC. She has worked for the National Park Service for over 13 years. As a historical archeologist she is interested in American decorative arts especially gravestones, ceramics, and furniture.
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2 Responses to Reflections on the African Burial Ground Project

  1. Anne Yentsch says:

    Sometimes we lose track of the impact a project can have, especially in places remote from the actual excavation site. While teaching at a university in Savannah, Georgia, I routinely used the 4-part film about the site in my archaeology and American history courses. Students were, of course, intrigued, but not always very vocal about the topic. There were very few African Americans in these classes because their enrollment was much lower than white students. The university began to work more vigorously with the African American community, began to bring high school students to the campus for visits, and then to run a summer enrichment program. I was asked to give a lecture on archaeology and planned to use the African Burial Ground as the topic. However, I accidentally showed the history section rather than the archaeology film segment and worried the 250-300 students might be bored. But the audience was almost totally silent. Imagine my surprise when the film ended, I thanked them for listening, and got a spontaneous standing ovation and a few verbal cheers. It took me awhile to realize that this was the first time these sixth and seventh graders had ever seen their history presented with their point of view in mind. Their silence had been the clue they were riveted to the screen. Few archaeological studies impact communities in quite the way that this project did, not only in New York, but in communities a thousand miles away.

  2. A number of archaeological documents related to the African Burial Ground National Monument can be viewed and downloaded at the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR). Check out the collection at http://core.tdar.org/project/4859

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