Archaeology, Museums and the Legacies of Slavery

Organiser Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum)
Chair Dr Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum)

The session will demonstrate the value of archaeology of slavery within museums. How can archaeology speak on behalf of certain (at times forgotten) African Diaspora communities?

Dr Richard Benjamin will begin by giving an overview of the work of the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool, in particular the museum’s involvement in several archaeological projects, which in their own way offer a voice to often forgotten and marginalised African Diaspora communities. His paper will highlight the value of archaeological research and partnership work for ISM and museums generally within this field.

Dr Rob Philpott will focus on his research work on plantation sites as part of the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Project, which seeks to give a voice to the enslaved Africans and their families, investigating the lives of enslaved Africans through excavation and interpretation of the material remains they left behind.

Dr Andrew Pearson will discuss excavations he oversaw in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena, which have offered a fascinating insight into the human implications of the slave trade on the island in terms of the lives of the enslaved and the products of their labours.

Dr Warren Perry will review the African Burial Ground, located in lower Manhattan, New York City, the largest excavated African cemetery from colonial America. The project became highly politicized due to the way the African American descendant community took ownership of what they saw as the disrespectful treatment of their ancestors. There is now an African Burial Ground National Monument.


The Archaeology of the International Slavery Museum

Speaker: Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum)

This paper will highlight the value of archaeological research and displays as well as related partnership work for the International Slavery Museum ISM.  There will be an overview of the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool and the Museum’s involvement in several slavery related archaeological projects, which in their own way offer a voice to African Diaspora communities.

Working with archaeologists whose research covers aspects of slavery related archaeology aids both content; object research; academic credibility and the opportunity to work with partners in countries where important archaeological research is taking place, for instance, St. Kitts and Nevis through the Digital Archaeology Initiative and African Diaspora communities in St. Helena.

The breadth of archaeological slavery related material within a museum environment should attempt the depiction of a broad degree of material culture, not just that from a  European perspective such as goods related to the economics of slavery or implements of enslavement such as physical restraints; whips and shackles, objects more traditionally associated with slavery.  These types of objects are almost overwhelmingly made in Europe, and although interesting and rare themselves, a museum of slavery should in addition, display and research objects that were either made or owned by enslaved or emancipated Africans.

Disciplines such as plantation archaeology and African American archaeology, including research on lifeways, offer the public a greater awareness of the African Diaspora and indeed transatlantic slavery and its consequences through related objects, particularly within a museum.


The St. Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative: the artificial, spatial, & historical analysis of slavery in the early modern Atlantic World.

Speakers: Jillian E. Galle (The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery), Robert Philpott (National Museums Liverpool),  Fraser D. Neiman (Virgnia University) & Roger Leech (University of Southampton)

The St. Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative is an innovative collaborative research project designed to further scholarship on slavery. Funded by the Joint information Systems Committee (UK) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (US), archaeologists from the United Kingdom and United States have worked together for over two years to develop an integrated digital archive of diverse archaeological and historical data related to the experiences of the enslaved men and women who labored on three sugar plantations in the Caribbean. An international team of scholars from The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia (, the University of Southampton’s Nevis Heritage Project (, and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool ( digitized and delivered on the web archaeological and historical information from three 18th-century plantations and their slave villages, two located on Nevis and one on St. Kitts. The result is a first-of-its-kind digital collection of fully searchable archaeological and historical data from multiple slave village sites in the Caribbean.

The SKNDAI project began in 2006 with the preliminary archaeological survey of villages once inhabited by enslaved laborers on Nevis. With funding secured in 2008, our team spent 9 weeks surveying and excavating the New River Estate and Jessups Estate villages on Nevis and The Spring village on St. Kitts. At the same time, researchers entered the archives in the Caribbean and UK to uncover primary sources related to slavery on these plantations. This paper provides an overview of the project, with a specific focus on the archaeological methods and results. The paper concludes with a brief review on the online resources produced by The St. Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative.


Life & Death in Rupert’s Valley: the archaeology of Abolition on St Helena

Speaker: Andrew Pearson (University of Bristol/Pearson Archaeology Ltd)

Whilst there is archaeological evidence for the slave trade, both in Africa and in the New World, the Middle Passage itself is almost completely unrepresented. However, in 2008 excavations in Rupert’s Valley, on the island of St Helena, revealed the graves of some of the very last victims of the slave trade, bringing to light a unique assemblage of human and artefactual remains.

The graves related to ‘liberated Africans’, rescued from slave ships by the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, which for much of the 19th century was responsible for implementing Britain’s Abolitionist policies on the high seas. Captured slave ships were taken for trial at the Vice-Admiralty court on St Helena – bringing with them their abject human cargo. Rupert’s Valley became a hospital and holding depot, prior to the Africans’ return home or, far more commonly, their onward shipment to the Caribbean as indentured labourers. However, the conditions of the Middle Passage were such that many died on the slave ships, or subsequently in hospital. Rupert’s Valley came to be a graveyard on a massive scale: many thousands are known to have been buried there between 1840 and 1867.

In all, 325 bodies were excavated, many buried in groups and showing signs of rapid, mass interments. All were children or young adults – prime material for the slave traders. Coffins and fragments of clothing survived, as did personal effects such as jewellery, and artefacts relating to the slave trade itself. This dramatic and disturbing discovery not only advances understanding of the 19th century slave trade and the political machinations behind its abolition; it also brings a voice to a forgotten people who died in the limbo, in a place physically and conceptually between freedom and slavery.


Ethnographic Considerations of Local Community Interventions in Museum Activities: Legacies of Trans Atlantic Slave Trade in Badagry, Nigeria.

Speaker:  Alaba Simpson (Crawford University)

The paper discusses from an ethnographic perspective, community involvement in the running of local museums of slave trade as it occurs among the people of Badagry in the Lagos state of Nigeria. It observes that the perpetuation of slave trade activities in Nigeria was not confined to European slave traders but also reflected the trade line of some indigenes in various local communities in the country. Using the notable slave port of Badagry  as example therefore, the paper discusses the local ‘curators’ in the community’s museums   of slave trade. These museums are presently managed domestically by the families of local slave traders who attract remarkable tourist response on a day to day basis. Local museums consisting of slave chains and other slave related relics thus remain to date as legacies of slavery in Badagry. Studies of this nature will no doubt continue to expand the frontiers of knowledge relating to the museum and will also keep alive the memory of slave trade in the communities where this historical process occurred. The paper will be backed by visual illustrations.

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