Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia

Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia

Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia

Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia


Enslaved Africans and their descendants comprised a significant portion of colonial Virginia populations, with most living on rural slave quarters adjacent to the agricultural fields in which they labored. Archaeological excavations into these home sites have provided unique windows into the daily lifeways and culture of these early inhabitants. A common characteristic of Virginia slave quarters is the presence of subfloor pits beneath the houses. The most common explanations of the functions of these pits are as storage places for personal belongings or root vegetables, and some contextual and ethnohistoric data suggest they may have served as West Africa-style shrines. Through excavations of 103 subfloor pits dating from the 17th through mid-19th centuries, Samford reveals a wealth of data including shape, location, surface area, and depth, as well as contents and patterns of related feature placement. Archaeology reveals the material circumstances of slaves' lives, which in turn opens the door to illuminating other aspects of life: spirituality, symbolic meanings assigned to material goods, social life, individual and group agency, and acts of resistance and accommodation. Analysis of the artifact assemblages allows the development of hypotheses about how West African, possibly Igbo, cultural traditions were maintained and transformed in the Virginia Chesapeake.


The slave's history— like all human history— was made not only by what
was done to them but also by what they did for themselves.

—Berlin 1998:2

Prior to 1863, enslaved African Americans performed much of the manual labor that powered the American South. Millions of Africans and subsequent generations of their descendants toiled in the tobacco, cotton, and rice fields of the South, while others were employed in skilled trades and industries. Despite their crucial roles in the economy, the lives of slaves, in many respects, are shadowy and inaccessible. Because most of the enslaved were kept from learning to write, their thoughts and emotions come to us only indirectly. a few slaves were allowed opportunities to tell their stories; some of them were relayed in the context of nineteenth- century abolitionist- backed autobiographies. Other former slaves had to wait over half a century before Works Progress Administration workers in the era of the Great Depression undertook an extensive program of interviews with elderly African Americans (Perdue et al. 1976; Rawick 1979). Because only a handful of the millions of enslaved African Americans were able to put their stories on paper, the narratives of the rest have to be gleaned from other sources.

These other sources of information are varied and, surprisingly, quite abundant. Analyses of slave trade records reveal regional concentrations of individuals from specific African cultural groups (Chambers 2000; Lovejoy 2003). the enslaved make frequent appearances in court records throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Plantation accounts penned by slaveholders record seemingly mundane entries: slave names and ages, work assignments, punishments meted, and rations apportioned. Hidden behind the often spidery and faded ink strokes are the rich textures of individual and community life. in the hands of a skilled historian, these plantation records can be used to weave compelling stories of the tenacity of the human . . .

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