The Archaeology of Slavery

Slavery has, unfortunately been a prevalent theme in most societies throughout all of history. When the average person in the United States thinks about slavery, they think of colonialism, African slave trade, plantations, and the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln finally put an end to the madness. But slavery has happened so many times before, is happening today, and will happen again in the future. It is not merely a laps in moral judgment that happened during a specific time, like from the birth of the US to the Civil War, or while the Egyptians built the pyramids. The exploitation of slave labor is consistent part of humanity and should be treated as such.

Many documents are valuable for the identification and study of slavery in the United States. These should be used along with archaeological methods for a thorough investigation.

Up until the adoption of the post-processual approach to archaeology, any notice of slavery was done through historical written record. It was believed to be the only way of seeing slavery, that there was no way to know that slaves existed unless you knew they were there. Ropes deteriorated over time, and chains were often repurposed.  But there are many ways of identifying the presence of slavery in the archaeological record. The places slaves lived, especially on plantations in the United States, were generally smaller and separated from the remainder of the house. It is often hard to tell if these quarters were for slaves, free blacks, or white servants. Sometimes with slaves, more effort was put into hiding their existence, and the house’s reliance on slave labor. Screens could be put up, or very elaborate alternative ways of navigating spaces, like different stairs etc. However, given such detailed and well-recorded accounts of slavery in the US, it seems counterproductive to not rely on both documentary and archaeological sources. But what about the places that have fewer or no written records? In ancient societies, slaves were taken from the defeat or sacking of other societies. The men were killed, and women and children were taken to be sold into slavery. This led to the idea that if more women were found on the archaeological record, then slavery was present in the society. Slaves are also depicted in frescos and paintings as smaller than other people in the picture.

Slaves depicted as smaller than the rest of the people in the picture.

Once slavery is “discovered” then what, and does it even need to be discovered? We know that 1 in 3 people in Italy during the Roman Empire were slaves and that they were integral to society. There are over 20 million people in slavery today. Nothing has changed. At this point, do we need to identify slavery? Or can we just “assume access to coerced labor… in the same way access to drinking water is assumed.” Some archaeologists want to shift the focus of the archaeology of slavery to the study of its effects and consequences, instead of merely whether or not it existed. These invisible demographics throughout history, like slaves, homeless people and migrants, can provide insights into the present and ways to tackle these issues right now.


  • Cameron, Catherine M., et al. The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion. No. 41. SIU Press, 2014.
  • Singleton, Theresa A. The archaeology of slavery and plantation life. Routledge, 2016.
  • Mark Cartwright. “Slavery in the Roman World,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 01, 2013. /article/629/.
  • Ian Muir-Cochrane, Are there really 21 million slaves worldwide?

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2 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Slavery

  1. Why will Slavery happen in the future? Is slavery actually a consistent part of humanity? What is the danger in just making the assumption that throughout anytime and area that there was slavery?

  2. We as a society like to believe we are the epitome of modernity but that is not necessarily true. We cannot assume that civilization and development is linear and that we are now above instituting a system of forced, free labor again. I hope that slavery or anything like it never happens again, but I am not confident. Additionally, it can be said that slavery is still present today, with roughly 20 million people in that position (see 4th “source” or second “further reading”) so assuming it will happen in the future is pretty valid if it is happening now.
    I would argue that slavery is definitely a consistent part of humanity, it has existed periodically throughout the last 4000 years, but you should not assume it *always* exists. The type of society impacts its existence, for example, slavery doesn’t make as much sense in a hunter gatherer society, it is ethnocentric of us to assume that all groups of people would behave similarly to us. Slavery should be assumed where it is likely to have existed, becuase it probably did. The important thing here is for archaeologists and anthropologists to stop just searching for slavery and leaving it at that. It is better to assume it exists or has existed within a centralized society and move on to study things like its impacts, who were slaves and why, what was life like for them, instead of merely debunking it in the way of “these walls/pyramids/any monument that people thought were built by aliens/gods/cyclopes were actually built with hundreds of years of forced labor!” It is time to move past that, so if assuming slavery exists will better syphon efforts into learning about and studying these enslaved peoples then so be it. If along the way it is discovered that these hypothetical slaves actually received wages or were free and therefore not enslaved, then we learned more about a people and that is good.

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