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Enslaved African-American Foodways

Extensive recent work has gone into the study of African-American foodways, encompassing not only diet but also the whole complex of food-related behavior that includes cuisine, provisioning and acquisition, butchering and preparation methods, and disposal practices. Archaeology has become a major avenue by which foodways are studied, and zooarchaeologists (experts in the study of animal bones) and archaeobotanists (specialists in the study of plant remains) have made great strides in the investigations of this subject.

Animal Bones

The bones found during excavations are carefully studied in zooarchaeological labs, where they are identified to species and examined for signs of burning, butchering, or other modification. General patterns of diet can be inferred by comparing the proportions of different species from site to site (particularly comparing slave vs. non-slave households, as well as urban vs. rural assemblages). Acquisition and husbandry patterns can be viewed by determining the age at death of the animals, which can be estimated from many of the bones. By carefully looking at the proportions of different skeletal elements (for instance, the percentage of head and foot vs. body parts), it is also possible to see differences in the utilization of the animal that may be related to differences in price and/or availability.

Study of virtually hundreds of archaeological sites has suggested that the diets of African-American and white households in the colonial Chesapeake were similar in that they both consumed mostly beef, pork, and mutton, with lesser amounts of wild mammals and birds, chicken, and fish.

Faunal remains from the Rich Neck Slave Quarter. As seen here, highly fragmented beef, pork, and mutton bones probably represent one-pot meals. Their meat diet was diverse, including domesticated mammals, chicken, fish, turtle, wild birds, and wild mammals.

Surprisingly enough, both wealthy and non-wealthy (as well as slave and non-slave) consumed meat from the heads and feet as well as cuts from the main body. This is somewhat in contradiction to preliminary studies in the last twenty years (notably by John Solomon Otto at Cannon’s Point Plantation), which suggested that perhaps slave households were more likely to consume a larger proportion of the heads and feet (“non-meaty” elements) relative to the meatier, and thus more expensive, cuts from the body.

However, butchery marks show that the elite tended to prepare larger cuts of meat, while slaves chopped their meat into much smaller portions. Zooarchaeologists interpret this evidence to mean slaves more often prepared one-pot meals, such as hominy. And both slave and non-slave consumed chicken along with a variety of fish, turtle, wild fowl, and wild mammals. White households, particularly those of the elite, however, consumed a greater proportion of meat from domesticated animals, such as cattle, while their slaves consumed a diverse diet that included much larger quantities of wildlife, particularly fish. In most cases, in fact, altogether wildlife totals upward of 20 to 40% of the slave meat diet.

Zooarchaeologist Stephen Atkins identifying fish remains from the Rich Neck Slave Quarter site.

Archaeologists commonly recover many species of small fish from slave sites, but recover larger fish, such as sheepshead as well as sturgeon and black drum, on other non-slave urban sites. This evidence is interpreted to mean slaves consumed the smaller fish, but sold larger fish to urban residents.

The sheepshead, a local fish that was commonly caught along jetties and on oyster bars, is shown here along with bone fragments recovered from archaeological sites.

Plant Remains

 
Large samples of soil are removed from each layer or feature for flotation analysis.

The Atkinson site was particularly notable for being one of the first sites at Colonial Williamsburg for which very detailed, comprehensive sampling was undertaken to evaluate the plant remains. Working under the direction of archaeobotanist Steve Archer, students learned to collect and process large-volume soil samples from the plowzone and the fill of the various features, and the site served as a testing laboratory for the development of effective methods in this still-fairly young field.

Samples of soil gathered from the site were immersed in a “flotation tank” to separate out much of the “macrobotanical” material (seeds, pieces of wood charcoal, etc.), as well as to find other tiny artifacts and bones that are necessarily missed during screening.

Even more information is gathered by phytolith analysis. Phytoliths, microscopic inorganic silica casts of plant cells or intercellular spaces, are highly durable indicators of plant life, and can be collected by chemically separating them from the surrounding soil. The phytolith program at Colonial Williamsburg began in 1995 under the direction of Dr. Lisa Kealhofer, and has continued as one of the handful of active phytolith laboratories in the country.

 
Excavated soil is often passed through a large flotation tank to separate out small artifacts, seeds, and bones. The material found in the flotation tank must be carefully sorted for later analysis.

The analysis of the plant material at the Atkinson site is still in progress, but promises to provide important evidence about the life of Chesapeake tobacco plantations and the diet and foodways of the site’s occupants.

Photomicrograph of Zea mays (corn) phytolith.

 

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