Slavery in the Age of Reason

Archaeology at a New England Farm

  • Author(s): Chan, Alexandra
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2015-06-15
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Paper: Price $31.00 | Buy Now

Offering a rare look into the lives of enslaved peoples and slave masters in early New England, Slavery in the Age of Reason analyzes the results of extensive archaeological excavations at the Isaac Royall House and Slave Quarters, a National Historic Landmark and museum in Medford, Massachusetts.

Isaac Royall (1677-1739) was the largest slave owner in Massachusetts in the mid-eighteenth century, and in this book the Royall family and their slaves become the central characters in a compelling cultural-historical narrative. The family’s ties to both Massachusetts and Antigua provide a comparative perspective on the transcontinental development of modern ideologies of individualism, colonialism,  slavery, and race.

Alexandra A. Chan examines the critical role of material culture in the construction, mediation, and maintenance of social identities and relationships between slaves and masters at the farm. She explores landscapes and artifacts discovered at the site not just as inanimate objects or “cultural leftovers,” but rather as physical embodiments of the assumptions, attitudes, and values of  the people who built, shaped, or used them. These material things, she argues, provide a portal into the mind-set of people long gone-not just of the Royall family who controlled much of the material world at the farm, but also of the enslaved, who made up the majority of inhabitants at the site, and who left few other records of their experience.

Using traditional archaeological techniques and analysis, as well as theoretical perspectives and representational styles of post-processualist schools of thought, Slavery in the Age of Reason is an innovative volume that portrays the Royall family and the people they enslaved “from the inside out.” It should put to rest any lingering myth that the peculiar institution was any less harsh or complex when found in the North.

Alexandra A. Chan currently works in cultural resource management as an archaeological consultant and principal investigator. As assistant professor of anthropology at Vassar College, 2001-2004, she also developed numerous courses in historical archaeology, archaeological ethics, comparative colonialism, and the archaeology of early African America. She was the project director of the excavations at the Isaac Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, 2000-2001, and continues to serve on the Academic Advisory Council of the museum.