Plantations without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth and Material Life at Bush Hill. Vol. 1, Context and Interpretation

Article excerpt

Plantations Without Pillars: Archaeology, Wealth and Material Life at Bush Hill. Vol. 1, Context and Interpretation. MELANIE A. CABAC and MARK D. GROOVER. Savannah River Archaeological Research Papers, No. 11 Occasional Papers of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, 2004. iii-xii + 254 pp., 150 illus., 74 tables, biblio. $18.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Nicholas Honerkamp

As most of us are aware, there is a wide spectrum of quality to be found in historic site research reports, be they academic or cultural resource oriented. Some are of the melancholy bare-bones variety, reflecting constraints on research time and funding. And then there are the truly remarkable efforts that stand as models for archaeologists of all stripes. Cabac and Groover's exhaustively researched Plantations Without Pillars falls into this second category.

The Bush Hill plantation (38AK660) is located in the Savannah River site in Aiken County, South Carolina, on a Department of Energy nuclear research facility. The site was investigated as part of the Savannah River Research Program and it is the only antebellum plantation in the middle Savannah River Valley that has been the subject of data-recovery-level research. As the title of the monograph implies, Bush Hill was a working plantation rather than a columned country estate. It was owned by four lineal generations of the same family and occupied from about 1807 to 1920. In the pre-Emancipation period, the plantation was an unpretentious but certainly successful cotton producing operation. A central theme of the research design for this site is defining and contextualizing the "working" versus "show" plantation distinction, with a goal of correcting the common Gone with the Wind stereotype of Southern plantation life. The authors waste little time in doing so: The first paragraph of their introductory chapter points out that only 5 percent of white males in the Old South owned slaves in 1850. Cabac and Groover argue that for several generations of the Bush family-and probably for many other midlevel planters like them-wealth was expressed primarily in land and labor ownership rather than over-the-top architectural extravagance and lavish material possessions. While this observation is not unique in plantation studies, the approach used in demonstrating it is unusual for its thoroughness and quantitative emphasis.

The authors begin by defining a plantation as "an agricultural operation where most of the agricultural products were raised through the use of enslaved labor" (p. 2-1), a definition that is not contingent on acreage or the number of slaves present. Besides distinguishing plantations from farms that lack slave labor, such a flexible approach accommodates the dynamic nature of plantation evolution. Linking the trajectory of plantation development to a Wallersteinian world system model, with a reliance on the scholarship of Francis Braudel, the authors propose a plantation typology that is defined by several variables. These include regional and temporal trends in demographics, settlement patterns, subsistence practices, economic characteristics (crops, land and slaveholdings, labor systems, wealth groups, etc.), material culture (architecture, material possessions, etc.), and social characteristics (including slave autonomy). They then seek to identify the range of variation among plantations within their study area, and also to define the relative socioeconomic position of the study household among other planters using census data and probate inventories. One way the latter goals are accomplished is to calculate Bush family financial averages from the census information and compare them to averages calculated from 15 names immediately before and after the Bush census entries. This allows outliers in the region to be easily identified. …