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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Experimental Archaeology: The Cognitive Ability of Neanderthals

The homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthal, went extinct around 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthals were closely related to humans, sharing most of the same DNA, with their latest common ancestor being between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago. When most people think of Neanderthals, they see the blundering cave man with limited cognition, similar to a very early hominin species or chimpanzees, very different than that of a modern human. More recent discoveries by archaeologists in Gibraltar challenge those assumptions.

Openings to caves in Gibraltar

The human species is distinguished from other life forms by our ability to use symbols. These symbols can be anything from markings on cave walls or early monetary systems. Archaeologists also look at various artifacts and symbols to evaluate the cognitive ability of archaic humans. Modern societies and populations are taken into account in order to give context to the artifacts. Because there are no living societies of Neanderthals to compare to the findings of archaeologists, other methods are used to provide context, like experimental archaeology.

In 2012 archaeologists found an engraving in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a British territory off the south coast of Spain. Gibraltar is known to be a long-term residence of Neanderthals and is home to a Neanderthal museum and many ongoing excavations. The engraving was of an incomplete cross-hatching of three and two lines. These lines are significantly different from the cracks and fissures of the exposed lime-dolostone of the cave.

Cross-hatching pattern made by Neanderthals

The archaeologists then attempted to recreate the markings in the cave on excavated portions of the same rock from the same cave to learn more about the nature of the tools used. First they tried using a stone with a tip similar in size to the engravings, held it in place and scratched it back and forth to create a marking of the same depth. This method gave way to a marking that was rough and uneven with fringe on either end, which was not present in the engraving. They also discovered that the lines would not have resulted in a misplaced swing of a tool used to cut pigskin. The marking matched up best with lines created with careful incisions going in one direction.

Graph of width vs. number of strokes of different tools used to recreate engraving

They also needed roughly 200-300 cuts to create a line with the same dimensions as the markings in Gorham’s cave. This leads to the need to protect one’s hand and extensive knowledge of tools. The archaeologists conclude that “this discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms.”

Maybe we don’t give Neanderthals the credit they deserve, and more research needs to go into challenging the idea that the cognitive ability of the predecessors of our species, and Neanderthals, are inherently lower than that of our own.

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