I’m here today to talk about the ways that community archaeology hits home – for me, quite literally. My dissertation has focused on my own family’s Homeplace, a farmstead in southeastern Illinois dating from the early 19th century to the present. I’ve been working on this site since 2010, and our project has included oral history collections, documentary research, and two field seasons of excavation. I’ve always been interested in collaborative archaeological projects, and it is working on this particular site that has really driven home for me how important community engagement really is.
My ancestors came to Illinois when it was still the frontier, before the land was cleared, before statehood, and before the civil war and Jim Crow would drastically change the racialized social landscape for Free Black communities. They came as Free People of Color from South Carolina via Kentucky; they fought in the war of 1812 and afterwards stayed to establish some of the area’s first forts and churches. They sent for their families and built their farms, and by 1875 over 400 acres in Bond Township were owned by Free Black Farmers.
The history of Free People of Color before the Civil War is often, like their legal status, ambiguous, hard to find, and sometimes controversial. For me, archaeology presented a way for the descendants and stakeholders of our community to learn more about the lived experiences of our ancestors; and about the ways that they may have negotiated their liminal status as Free People of Color in a way that enabled them to continue living and farming on their homeplaces in a time when so many people’s lives were being displaced and disrupted.
I was told this history growing up, and I knew our folks had a deep history in the area, and it was partly this sense of the richness of histories like ours, histories that usually aren’t written and recorded, that led me to pursue a career in historical archaeology. I knew from these experiences that there is so much more to history than what becomes the written narrative, and to me archaeology has always felt like another way to tell these stories.
It wasn’t always my plan to work in my own community, at least not right away. It took some inspiration and prompting from others in the community before I was ready to embark on an archaeological project there. At the time of the project’s inception, I was a second year graduate student, thinking aloud to my family that I’d need to find a project to focus my PhD dissertation on. I was explaining what it is that I do as an historical archaeologist to my family, when someone chipped in: “That’s all very interesting, so when are you going to bring that work back here? We’ve got a lot of history here.”
It had occurred to me that our site was interesting and perhaps even unique, but I’ll be honest, I was quite intimidated by the prospect of working on my own family’s history. As we delved into documentary and oral historical research, trying to settle on which site would work best for an archaeological investigation, I did begin to worry and wonder about what, if anything, we might find. As archaeologists we know that the work we do has an impact on the people who’s history we study, in order to explore this relationship more fully, I decided that part of my dissertation work would be to compare my views and experiences with the site as an archaeologists with my feelings about the site as a descendant, and see how those were similar or different. This aspect of working on my own ancestors’ history, alongside other descendants and community members highlighted for me the ways in which archaeology not only shapes people’s narratives about their pasts, but also creates a moment for communities to remember and tell their own stories.
As we excavated, volunteers and community members who helped out on the site would find artifacts, and identifying and discussing these objects would often trigger memories and stories about the homeplace. Lost marbles would prompt memories of different games folks had played on the porch as children, and of the cousins and neighbors who visited and took part in these games. It was here that I realized that so much of the storytelling that becomes archaeology happens not just in the ways in which we write about the past, but the ways in which communities remember their past through the objects we excavate, in the moments that we pull them from the earth.
For me, these memories and moments were just as important as the excavation itself, both as an anthropologist interested in the ethnography, and as a young descendant hungry for stories of the ancestors I’d never gotten the chance to meet. Working in my own community has highlighted the ways in which archaeological investigation is it’s own moment for memory-making and storytelling; and if we recognize and engage with our communities in these moments, our understanding of the pasts become far more meaningful.
Written by: Annelise E. Morris
Annelise E. Morris is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in Anthropology, focusing in African Diaspora Historical Archchaeology. Her research interests include: ideas of race and processes of racialization, social inequality, materiality, articulations between racialization and capitalism, processes of history and memory, and public and community archaeologies.