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Digging into history of slavery

By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2012
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A fragment of a tamarind jar, an unglazed piece of reddish-brown ceramics, and a gray Native American pestle are some of the discoveries that could bring a new distinction to this most historic of historic American towns.

An excavation this summer in a small shed and nearby grounds on North Street has yielded more than 30,000 artifacts dating back 1,000 years. But the prized finds have been the bits and pieces that “might point to an African origin and [dwellers’] desire to maintain a physical, spiritual, and mental connection with their origins,’’ said archeologist Craig Chartier.

Now the findings have to be compared with known slave sites in the United States before determining whether the shed, which is recorded in the online archives of the Massachusetts Historic Commission as “slave quarters,” is the second remaining slave home in the Northeast, joining the Isaac Royall House in Medford.

“There is very good evidence of slaves at the site . . . but I would need a lot more evidence of African folkways and African-influenced material culture artifacts, as well as the probability that after exhausting all possibilities, it couldn’t be anything else,” said Chartier. That confirmation could come as early as this winter.

Chartier, who is director of the New Bedford-based Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project, led a team of trained and novice workers on the backyard dig. The project began in April, with a $15,000 Community Preservation Fund grant spurred by historian Rose T. Briggs’s typewritten reference to Colonel George Watson’s slave house in a 1967 Massachusetts Historical Inventory Form that she submitted on behalf of the Pilgrim Society.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s executive director, Donna Curtin, found the reference two years ago while searching in the society’s file for documents by Briggs. Curtin, long curious about slave lore surrounding the small building, which was most recently used as a tool shed for the Plymouth Arts Center, then pushed for the grant.

“New England slavery is a part of history people have not been that interested in thinking about or understanding, but now is the time to come back and scientifically investigate this,” said Curtin, noting that “Massachusetts was the first colony to pass laws to allow slavery in 1641, ironically called the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.”

For years, the late James Deetz’s pioneering archaeology in the mid-1970s at Parting Ways, a freed slave community in Plymouth, served as a template for African-American archaeology. Deetz worked with local African-American volunteers instead of archaeology students, and interpreted artifacts within the context of African culture incorporated into the lives of slaves in Colonial America.

In recent years, however, his approach has been viewed as too speculative.

“Cultural traits transplanted wholesale from the African continent into the New World is a very static view of material culture and doesn’t look at cultural relations, cultural process, and the creation or origins of where and when did we come up with ideas of blackness and whiteness,” said Alexandra Chan, the lead archaeologist on the Isaac Royall House excavation.

“If you’re only focused on picking up a piece and saying this is African or European, you kind of miss the bigger picture,” she said.

A 1990s dig led by Stephen Mrozowski of the University of Massachusetts-Boston and current research by Boston University doctoral candidate Karen Hutchins has modified some of the interpretations at Parting Ways.

For example, Deetz thought he had found evidence of a West African floor plan within the New England-style houses at Parting Ways. But according to Hutchins, “We now know that at least one of the homes was built by a white squatter . . . and there is no way of knowing what the interior would have looked like from the archaeological remains.”

About a decade ago, Chan excavated the Medford estate of prosperous merchant and slave owner Isaac Royall, and was moved by what she called the “small finds, personal possessions, evidence of leisure time activities and self-adornment . . . that helps to bring these people out of the shadows of anonymity [so that] for the briefest, most exhilarating of moments . . . time seems to collapse in on itself and I can almost feel our hands touch across time.”

Now, in Plymouth, Chartier is sorting through the bounty of artifacts found at the North Street property that belonged to Watson, a well-to-do mariner and slave owner.

The shed, built in the early 18th century, remains in its original location, though the timnber structure was raised over a cobblestone base in the 1830s.

Because the funding for the project focused on determining whether the shed had been a slave house, items that may reflect an African-American presence generated initial excitement. But Chartier cautions that a tamarind jar, for example, would not be unusual in the home of a merchant.

The earthen ceramics known as colonoware, too, are now known to have been produced by Native Americans as well as slaves, according to Mrozowski. And the pestle resembles one that seems to have been used in the Royall House kitchen, indicating the slaves’ use of indigenous people’s artifacts, Chartier said.

There are also alternative theories on the use of the building, whose shed-like exterior is at odds with the carefully plastered and wainscoted interior walls.

Stephen O’Neill, curator at Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum, hypothesizes that it was an outhouse, while Colonial Williamsburg historian Cary Carson conjectures that it may have served as a debt-collection office that allowed Watson to keep business matters out of his home.

Chartier is continuing to gather information, such as written mention of an additional slave in the Watson household. In addition to slaves named Cuffee and Esack, the household had Quassia, said to be “full of fun and drollery.” His owner, Judge Peter Oliver of Middleborough, had been driven out of town by residents for his Tory sympathies, according to a passage in Thomas Weston’s “History of the Town of Middleborough,” written in 1906.

According to Chartier, the house was purchased by the Jackson family in 1818, and soon afterward, the first bananas imported into Plymouth were hung from a tree in the backyard.

Some of the uncovered artifacts are clearly not African-oriented, such as a silver and lead cartouche engraved with the Jackson name. The prettiest find, according to historian Curtin, is a 17th-century silver button engraved with a War of the Roses emblem.

And perhaps the most historic is evidence of the pre-Pilgrim Native Americans who farmed fields in their village of Patuxet, as well as stone tools and broken arrowheads dating back 1,000 years.

There may even be further evidence of a slave site in the framework of a significantly larger structure that runs eastward from the corner of the shed. Chartier said that could point to a building configuration similar to one on the grounds of the Royall House.

Chartier’s group will also excavate the property toward the back of the old Russell Library. Part of that area has been destroyed by bulldozers, but Chartier will work on the surrounding area.

These findings, like all that archaeology brings to light, matter, Chartier said, “because it’s everyone’s past — not mine, not some developer’s, and not some special-interest group.”

Constance Lindner can be reached at

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