The Archaeology of Antislavery Resistance

By Wesson, Cameron B. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Antislavery Resistance


Wesson, Cameron B., Southeastern Archaeology


The Archaeology of Antislavery Resistance. TERRANCE M. WEIK. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2012. xiv, 204 pp., illus., maps. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-81303759-2.

Addressing the material evidence of self-liberated Africans (Maroons) and intercultural resistance movements (e.g., the Underground Railroad, alliances with Native Americans, etc) in the Americas, in this volume Weik strives to move beyond well-worn discussions of domination and resistance to focus on revealing the worldviews of enslaved persons. Beginning with a brief but enlightening theoretical discussion of the concepts of freedom, liberty, inequality, domination, and resistance, he proceeds to an examination of the various acts-both active and passive-that are part of the repertoire of resistance. Unfortunately, as Weik readily admits, many of these actions left no discernible presence in either the historical or archaeological records, making their identification in specific contexts always contingent and anecdotal. However, rather than shying away from engagement with the contexts of antislavery resistance because of these ambiguities, Weik bravely forges ahead with his analysis of archaeological materials related to both self-emancipation and resistance movements.

Weik (p. 4) states, "Despite the challenges of locating material residues of escape, rebellions, or covert resistance, fragments of pottery, glass bottles, smoking pipes, nails, and metal containers hint at a range of possessions. These objects present archaeologists with opportunities to study their functions, their 'life histories,' their social impacts, and their meanings." He goes on to present a series of short vignettes of archaeological research at sites related to Maroon occupations in the Caribbean, Mexico, northern South America, and the southeastern United States. Additionally, he reviews research at sites related to the Underground Railroad and other collaborative antislavery efforts in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Canada.

What is most striking about the case studies Weik presents is just how little material evidence related to self-liberated Africans in the Americas has been recovered. In addition to their extremely small material inventories, the archaeological remains Weik discusses lack sufficient chronological control and, in most cases, cannot be tied securely to emancipated persons. The ephemeral nature of these archaeological deposits is at least in part a reflection of the material experience of a marginalized people who commonly sought out remote locales in fear of slave raids and a return to involuntary servitude. These limitations prevent Weik from producing anything resembling life histories for the material remains he examines or the people responsible for their deposition in the archaeological record. What remains are tantalizing "possibilities" regarding the manipulation of material objects in the creation of individual and collective identities as well as larger processes of ethnogenesis among self-liberated Africans in the Americas.

Despite these impediments, Weik rightly advocates a form of social network analysis in the examination of Maroon settlements that sees even the most clandestine locales as connected to larger external social, political, and economic spheres. Thus, rather than viewing the archaeological sites he discusses as isolated enclaves where Maroons created their own communities and identities anew, Weik sees these locales as strategic locations where emancipated people from various ancestral ethnic and religious groups (and with equally diverse life experiences within the slave system), came together to form new identities and engage the external world. …

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