Uncovering a History of Slavery

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 25, 2018) — Through the work of summer archaeological field schools in 2017 and 2018, UAlbany students have uncovered “a time capsule” of the lives of slaves who worked at the Ten Broeck Mansion in early 19th century Albany.

“We located a concentration of materials in 2017 and horizontally expanded our excavation in the area this summer,” said Marilyn Masson, professor of Anthropology and director of the six-week projects. The findings represent the remains of a kitchen working space and summer living quarters located in an outbuilding behind the mansion, which was built in 1797.

This summer’s work gave students a better understanding of the architecture, living floors and activity areas associated with the slaves, who were freed via the will of Elizabeth Ten Broeck upon her death in 1813.

The field team uncovered undisturbed concentrations of kitchen and food debris, along with other deposits of materials dating from approximately 1800-1825. Eleven UAlbany undergraduates acquired hands-on field research skills, including sampling, unit layout, excavation, mapping, field notes, photography, and lab analysis. They were joined by master’s candidate Nicholas Murphy, doing a graduate level field course.

“Archaeologists regard such infilled depressions as motherlodes of data, as they serve as time capsules in a sense, with dense quantities of well-preserved materials from specific intervals of occupation,” said Masson. “As we dig deeper in the architectural features and the living floors that lie adjacent to them, we anticipate being able to track changing activities and experiences in this building from the turn of the 19th century to the 1820s.”

Slavery began in New York in 1626 and was expanded by the British in the 1700s. The last slaves were sold in New York in 1827.

“Archaeological research into the daily lives of enslaved persons in cities such as Albany represents an important frontier of study,” said Masson. “It is essential to draw attention to the fact that no single model of ‘slave life’ existed, and research into this topic adds rich detail to their significant contributions to households, communities and avenues of self-determination.”

The "Underground Railroad Archaeology Project" is taught by Masson in collaboration with Michael Lucas, curator of historical archaeology at the New York State Museum, and supported by the Albany County Historical Society and the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region.

As was the case last year, a number of students will follow through in lab analysis during the fall and spring semesters, helping to process and analyze the materials recovered. Three anthropology honors students from a year ago presented their own findings at this year’s Undergraduate Research Conference. Together with the students, Masson and colleagues will prepare reports for the project’s sponsors, with the goal of publishing the findings.

Photos by Brian Busher

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