Today we are surrounded by bags of 19th-century marbles, buttons, beads, ceramics and pieces of iron and copper alloy hardware. Our job is to catalog and analyze each one of these artifacts, which were excavated from domestic sites of slavery—the houses and surrounding yards where enslaved people lived and worked—at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a typical day for us in the office, although we aren’t always surrounded by such amazing material culture. We work at the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). Our database and website, www.daacs.org serve archaeological data from over 80 sites of slavery in the southeastern United States and Caribbean free of charge to researchers and the public. Founded in 2000, and funded by the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, DAACS is based in the Archaeology Department at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Why do we do this?
Although it’s fun to study artifacts all day, we do have a larger purpose for our work. DAACS facilitates the comparative archaeological study of regional variation in slavery by providing researchers with standardized data from archaeological sites that were once homes to enslaved Africans and African Americans. A critical goal of our work is making data from archaeological excavations (those conducted in the 1970s all the way up through today) accessible and usable for archaeologists, historians, educators, and the public. Although excavation is essential to archaeological research, thousands of collections sit in museums and archaeological repositories that have not been cataloged or analyzed but have the potential to greatly inform our understanding of the past. By making data that has been cataloged using the same protocols from a variety of archaeological sites available via our website, DAACS is helping scholars advance our historical understanding of early-modern slave societies, by encouraging data sharing and comparative analysis across archaeological sites and geographic regions.
How do we do this?
Our staff consists of our Director, three full-time archaeological analysts and one or two part-time analysts. Although we are small staff, we get a lot done! On any given day we alternate between analyzing excavation information from field records, cataloging artifacts, answering material culture questions from colleagues, digital data management, and analysis for our own research projects.
There are four different ways that archaeological data gets into DAACS:
- Archaeological collections come to us at Monticello and we catalog them on-site in the DAACS Lab.
- We travel to the collections and field sites (so far we have cataloged collections in Barbados, Dominica, Jamaica, Nevis, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina).
- We conduct our own field work projects on Jamaica and Nevis through the DAACS Caribbean Initiative and enter the data into the DAACS database. All information from these sites are launched on daacs.org within a year of excavation. Learn more about our work in Jamaica and Nevis through DAACS and the International Slavery Museum.
- Finally, our colleagues who are trained in DAACS protocols and database entry can directly enter their data into DAACS via our web application, daacsrc.org.
Over the last five months we have analyzed material culture from Stratford Hall’s West Yard in Virginia, the Morne Patate Estate, an 18th c. sugar plantation in Dominica, and slave dwellings associated with The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee.
The data is entered using our standardized set of protocols into a PostgreSQL database thorough a web application built in Ruby-on-Rails software (www.daacsrc.org). In addition to analyzing artifacts, and the archaeological contexts from which they came, DAACS staff digitize site maps, photograph artifacts, digitize existing slides of fieldwork, produce Harris matrices, and develop detailed site chronologies and discursive background content for each site. All of this content accompanies the artifact data when an archaeological site is launched on the DAACS website.