Next on the list of sites close to my heart is the one that lead me to a career in archaeology. As an undergraduate I loved every subfield of Anthropology, and really enjoyed my major in English Literature too. I never had a problem thinking up something to do for a living--it was the narrowing down that gave me fits. That is, until I went to Kingsley Plantation. Visiting Kingsley as part of a University of North Florida course on Historical Archaeology, I was overwhelmed by the dearth of information about the people who had lived in the cabins. The disconnect between being able to walk amongst their still standing homes, yet know next to nothing about them confounded me. It drove home how valuable archaeology could be to developing an understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans.
|My favorite site on the planet (thus far) and I've been able to help with excavations! Who's got two thumbs and a lot of luck?|
Historical archaeology is sometimes thought of as a study of people who were not considered important enough to document--women, enslaved people, the poor. That claim has held stunningly true at Kingsley. Earliest excavations there took place through a University of Florida field school in 1968, under the guidance of Dr. Charles Fairbanks. In fact, that marked the birth of Plantation Archaeology (now, more broadly, archaeology of the African Diaspora). Fairbanks excavated the two cabins, seeking evidence of African cultures. Greatly disappointed that he did not see such evidence, his research focus pivoted as he moved on to other sites.
Some limited excavations occurred in the 1980s, but it was not until almost forty years after Fairbanks's efforts that the UF field school returned under Dr. James Davidson and cracked the Kingsley code.
|Students at UF's 2009 Historical Archaeology Field School screen for artifacts at Kingsley Plantation.|
If you ask Dr. Davidson, he will tell you that a chicken was the key to it all. While trying to establish a signature for wall foundations and doorways in 2006, Dr. Davidson's field crew came across a chicken burial beneath the tabby wall of one of the cabins. The burial was an evident sacrifice: situated atop an iron concretion, an amber glass bead and an egg, the hen lay with her head facing north and an eye to the sky. (2006) Davidson interpreted this sacrifice as a ritual to protect the home, possibly appealing to Ogun, the Ibo god of iron-working, hunting, and war. The iron concretion may have been dedicated to Esu, who carried messages between people and the gods.
|Chicken sacrifice found beneath the foundation of one of the west cabins. Note the iron concretion too--located just above the north arrow. Photo courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.|
This discovery opened the rest of the site to interpretation with an eye on ritual; though the chicken was the only complete animal burial, a deer tibia found beneath the front door of another cabin took on new meaning. (2007) Iron farming tools buried in rear doorways may represent another sacrifice to Ogun, or perhaps Oko, god of the farm. (2006)
|Iron hoe head buried behind a cabin, halfway between two footers for a back porch. Photo courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.|
All of these ritual items have in common a degree of ordinariness; iron farming tools and concretions, blue beads, and stones all take on new meaning, allowing Kingsley to be interpreted for the first time through the lens of religious practices derived from West African cultures.
|Blue beads found in the Kingsley cabins. The first three were found in a row, in a front doorway. Photo courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.|
|The 2011 excavation of a well behind two cabins in the east arc produced this stone, possibly a dedication to Yemoja, Yoruba goddess of fresh water and fertility. Photo courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.|
Ironically, looking back on Fairbanks's work, he too found some ordinary objects in locations consistent with these later discoveries, including iron tools buried in and near a rear doorway. He may have had ritual right in front of him--but he lacked a buried chicken.
Davidson's fascinating interpretation of religious identity aside, much more can be understood from the fieldwork that has recently taken place at Kingsley. Other surprising discoveries include evidence of private space--away from the eyes of a plantation owner--and indications that the enslaved Africans at Kingsley were thoroughly armed. (2007)
|With evidence of a back porch, this padlock cover demonstrates that some residents of the Kingsley cabins may have had a measure of private space. Photo courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.|
Evidence of armaments found in several Kingsley cabins included these gunflints and an ornate dragon sideplate for a firearm. Photos courtesy of the University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson.
Careful study and excavation also revealed the location of the slave cemetery at Kingsley in 2010.
In the time that has passed since my first visit to Kingsley, archaeology has answered so many of the questions that unsettled me. What's even better is this: since UF has excavated the site so meticulously, Dr. Davidson and his students can pursue so many more questions using the information they've already acquired. As they press on, our picture of life on Fort George Island becomes ever more elaborate.
For more information or to visit Kingsley, visit the Timucuan Ecological and Heritage Preserve website.
To read more (firsthand!) about recent finds at Kingsley, visit the UF Historical Archaeology Field School page.
Read about the slave cemetery found at Kingsley.