Archaeologists use artifacts to better understand the history, cultures, and evolution of humans across time and around the world. However, historians and archaeologists bring their own biases to the people they study. Over time, ignorance and prejudiced preconceptions have shaped our understanding of the past. The study of the colonial period in New York has been greatly influenced by these historic misunderstandings, which remained in place well into the twentieth century.
Early excavations at New York sites like Philipse Manor Hall overlooked artifacts related to the cultures and religious practices of enslaved Africans. These items were conserved, stored, and largely disregarded. It is only recently that a movement to study African cultures and the religious practices of those enslaved has advocated for the re-examination of these artifacts.
Reevaluating these items requires the dismantling of widespread misconceptions around the lives of those bound in servitude. Europeans routinely denigrated and dismissed African ways of life, claiming that the people who practiced them had no culture or religion. We understand now that this campaign of disinformation was designed to serve a larger goal: to justify inhumane treatment and to prop up the institution of chattel slavery.
Correcting these racially biased ideas requires archeologists, historians, curators, and others to study the Central and West African cultures before their contact with Europeans. With this information, we can begin to trace the ways that traditions echo across the African Diaspora. Though this work is in its early stages, historians and archaeologists all over the world are re-examining old artifacts, learning how Central and West African religious and cultural practices were maintained and passed down through the generations.
This work is fostering broader and richer historic narratives. It is helping us to understand the multicultural environment of colonial New York and to better appreciate the tenacity of those who choose to remember where they came from.
For more information on how historians are approaching this work check out the links below: