Historical Archaeology

, Volume 52, Issue 1, pp 125–139 | Cite as

Laboring under an Illusion: Aligning Method and Theory in the Archaeology of Plantation Slavery

  • Anna S. Agbe-Davies
Original Article


A rich body of thought—developed by archaeologists and others—points the way toward dynamic understandings of who humans are, yet archaeology struggles to be more than a handmaiden. Arguably, the problem is one of method rather than theory: what counts as data, how we archaeologists categorize things, and what our problems are. This paper examines labor relations in the early Virginia colony via locally made clay tobacco pipes. These artifacts, often treated as emblems of ethnic identity, are here used to understand a society in the process of transforming its pluralities into the categories that we take for granted.


slavery pragmatism Chesapeake tobacco pipe method race 


Un rico cuerpo de conocimiento—desarrollado por arqueólogos y otros—señala el camino hacia comprensiones dinámicas de quiénes son los humanos, sin embargo, la arqueología lucha por ser más que una sierva. Puede decirse que el problema es uno de método más que de teoría: lo que cuenta como datos, cómo los arqueólogos categorizamos las cosas, y cuáles son nuestros problemas. El presente documento examina las relaciones laborales en la temprana colonia de Virginia a través de las pipas de arcilla para tabaco hechas localmente. Estos objetos, a menudo tratados como emblemas de la identidad étnica, se utilizan aquí para comprender a una sociedad en el proceso de transformar sus pluralidades en las categorías que damos por hecho.


Un riche corpus de pensée—mis au point par les archéologues et autres—ouvre la voie vers la compréhension dynamique de qui sont les humains, mais l’archéologie se démène pour être plus qu’une servante. Sans doute, le problème est celui de la méthode plutôt que de la théorie : ce qui compte comme données, comment les archéologues classent les choses et quels sont nos problèmes. Cet article examine les relations de travail dans la première colonie de Virginie par des pipes de tabac en argile fabriquées localement. Ces artefacts, souvent considérés comme des emblèmes d’identité ethnique, sont utilisés pour comprendre une société dans le processus de transformation de ses pluralités en catégories que nous considérons comme acquises.



The research on which this article is based was supported by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the National Park Service, and the Organization of American Historians, the Ford Foundation, and the Committee of Faculty Research and Study Leaves, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer, as well as Nori Comello, Kurt Jordan, Christian Lentz, Bradley Phillippi, Eliza Richards, and Michael Roller. Their comments and advice have made this article so much stronger.


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Copyright information

© Society for Historical Archaeology 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillU.S.A.

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