As soon as the cool metal of the dusty diamond shaped object hit his hand, College of Charleston classical archaeology professor Jim Newhard felt a tingle of excitement.
“I knew what I had been handed pretty instantaneously and I went into a poker-face,” recalls Newhard, director of the Center for Historical Landscapes. “When you find something like this, its discovery needs to be managed. ‘It’s just another piece of data,’ one tells oneself. You keep matters subdued because sensational discoveries can put a site at risk.”
Indeed, the discovery last spring of an 1853 slave tag on the CofC campus quickly became a complex and profound opportunity to recognize the contributions of the enslaved people who lived and labored at the site during a dark period of American history. In use from the 18th century to 1865, a slave tag is a small, metal object that served as a permit showing slaveholders had registered an enslaved person with the city to work for someone else.
Conducted by faculty and student-volunteers, the excavation of the site at 63 1/2 Coming Street was part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy via the South Carolina Energy Office to build a solar pavilion, which required a cultural resource survey of the site prior to construction. The tag created opportunities for dialogue within the CofC community and beyond about the history of slavery in Charleston and ways to better shine a light on this difficult past.
And it’s the magnitude of that context that led the editors of Archaeology Magazine to include the slave tag as one of the Top 10 archaeological discoveries of 2021 from around the globe. The list is running in the magazine’s January/February 2022 issue, which hits newsstands this week, and includes archaeological finds ranging from an ancient Egyptian city unearthed in Luxor, Egypt, to evidence of when Vikings crossed the Atlantic and arrived at what is today Newfoundland, Canada.
“We felt the tag had to be included because it’s a reminder of an individual who may otherwise have been lost to time and to the dehumanizing system of enslavement,” says Marley Brown, associate editor of Archaeology Magazine. “What’s more, the fact that the College of Charleston team recovered the object from its archaeological context provides a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the person who may once have worn it – a real gift considering many of these tags have no provenance.”
“We are honored to see the Slave Tag, and the meaning behind the artifact, recognized by Archaeology Magazine on the world stage,” says geology professor Scott Harris, who directs the College’s Archaeology Program. “Coming off many years as being the No. 1 international destination city for tourism, we hope that this brings the City of Charleston and her people together to recognize the importance of the archaeology happening in the region and not just the buildings they can see.”
While other southern cities also had similar labor-for-hire arrangements with enslaved workers, Charleston is the only city known to produce tags for the enslaved person to wear as a means of documenting the agreement.
“What is uncommon about this discovery is that this object was found in context, unlike many other examples now in the hands of private collectors that have no provenance,” Grant Gilmore, associate professor and Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation, told the magazine, noting that property records for the kitchen and those who worked there may help connect the tag to the specific person to whom it was assigned. “An enslaved person living in the house may have discarded the tag in the hearth or someone on loan from across town may have lost it one day.”
The tag is a physical reminder of how urban slavery worked in Charleston, says Bernard Powers, director of the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston.
“You have a designation of an occupation and a connection to an individual that breaks through an amorphous group of enslaved humanity and allows for an identity and personhood to emerge,” Powers said in the Archaeology article.
Just as significant is the excavation itself – which was the first time faculty and students conducted an archaeological dig on the main College of Charleston campus before ground disturbance was underway. Taking place in the spring of 2021, the project gave many of the College’s newer archaeology majors their first chance at hands-on experience since the COVID-19 pandemic had all but dried up those opportunities for much of the past year.
Around 36 students worked on the site under the supervision of an archaeology professor for more than six weeks, carefully peeling back layers of dirt and brick to reveal a trove of thousands of artifacts including colonoware, coins, pottery, animal bones and buttons, in addition to the slave tag. Some students continued their work with the project, assisting in cataloguing and documenting the items that were found.
“The students not only were able to learn and hone archaeological site setup, excavation and other skills on site, but they were able to learn critical lessons about other aspects of the practice of archaeology,” says Harris. “Cultural resource management (CRM) is a fundamental need in the field of archaeology and specifically in Charleston. This opportunity was created through a rare combination of federal funding for the solar pavilion, and the need for archaeology at the construction site.
Adds Harris, “This excavation provided students who had not hand their hands in the soil a fantastic opportunity to drop in between classes to get outside and work and discover with faculty.”
Audrey Grau was among the students to participate in the excavation, where she spent time sifting, filling out context sheets and mapping site features.
“The last day that I was on the site we found a completely intact ceramic soda bottle in a builder’s trench, which gave us a specific year to work with for the construction of the kitchen,” recalls the sophomore, who is double-majoring in archaeology and history. “That was so exciting, and it was amazing to see the way that these artifacts can be perfectly preserved with just some dirt protecting them.”
Although she wasn’t there the day the slave tag was found, she says the historical significance of the object “reminds you just how much is underneath the ground you’re walking on in a historic city like Charleston.”
Honors College student Caleb Kelly assisted in processing and archiving the myriad of artifacts found at the site, in addition to participating in the excavation. For Kelly, it’s the totality of the history of the site that was so impactful.
“While the tag adds a tangible sense to the evils of slavery, it alone does not prove the value of the space,” says the junior, who is double-majoring in archaeology and anthropology. “Every single artifact and grain of soil moved from the site helps to tell the story of what happened there.”
Newhard says it’s a credit to the College’s archaeology program that faculty were able to pull together a plan for the excavation at a time when much of the archaeological world had ground to a halt due to the pandemic.
“We had the capacity via a strong archaeology program to send a call out and enroll the volunteer labor of students,” he says. “We had the physical space to store equipment, analyze the artifacts and eventually provide long-term storage through the Center for Social Science Research. Lastly, we provided digital space for the storage of project data, including drone imagery files, field notes, databases and GIS data. One of the significant elements of this project came from the fact that we’ve developed the program and institutional resources to handle this work.”
And while finding something as significant as the slave tag was not wholly unexpected given the city’s history, says Newhard, it was a visceral reminder of American slavery and a powerful opportunity to help students connect the value of archaeological work to the history that it uncovers.
“We knew we were excavating a space inhabited and used by enslaved people. Intellectually, everything that we were collecting was possessed or used by those people,” he says. “The tag, however, puts an agent to that scene. This was an object worn as a mark of enslavement – even if that mark also enabled the ability to more freely move about the urban landscape and possibly gain a pittance of remuneration for their work. You felt the evil. It redoubled in my mind that not only was this artifact an expression of enslavement, so were the other objects we were recovering.”
That opened the door for Newhard to immediately pause with the students at the site that day and help them understand the artifact and better recognize the significance of the site as a whole. “The tag put agency to the site – if not a name, an identity, and I wanted them to see the importance and value of the work they were doing.”
Now that work is being recognized on the world stage.