In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Material Culture of Slavery in the British Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Monographs
  • Journals
  • Databases
  • Slave Trading and the Middle Passage
  • Slaves and Economies
  • Housing and Architecture
  • Religious Objects
  • Mortuary Practices
  • Personal Possessions and Foodways
  • Museums and Heritage

Atlantic History Material Culture of Slavery in the British Atlantic
Stephan Lenik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0075


The material culture of Atlantic World slavery includes all portable and non-portable objects and structures that were associated with and produced because of the enslavement of Africans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Defining the geographical extent of slavery’s material culture starts in coastal and interior regions of Africa, which formed the sociopolitical and economic landscape that existed because of and alongside the slave trade, with the objects deployed to capture, brutalize, and transport people to coastal forts and ships that carried captive Africans via the brutal Middle Passage. The material culture of slaves forms a major focus of research, encompassing the varied experiences of slavery in the Americas, with the homes, possessions, agricultural implements, gardens, and foodways of enslaved Africans as well as commodities produced by their labor on and beyond the plantations. This material culture also must consider slavery’s wider context in the plantations, military installations, urban settings, and other locales where slavery occurred and the elites around the Atlantic basin who profited from commodities and wealth produced by enslaved labor. Also, material objects that were in the possession of maroons and the emancipated are not covered here. A wide array of sources preserve evidence of this material culture, and while the work of historians and historical archaeologists figures most prominently, there is a significant crossover among disciplines as anthropologists, art historians, folklorists, geographers, literary scholars, and others make important contributions. Textual sources related to material culture of slavery consist of primary documents, paintings, prints, and other visual media bearing evidence of material things, plus a rapidly growing secondary literature. Though textual and visual sources yield valuable information these represent an incomplete record. Many aspects of slavery were impartially recorded, if at all, and thus the systematic excavations conducted by historical and maritime archaeologists access a material record of Atlantic World slavery that is, in many cases, the only source of information about the lives of slaves as well as elites who enslaved them. To interpret this material culture in its various forms researchers must navigate between local contexts and Atlantic World slavery’s global scale. Interpreting functions or meanings of particular objects, buildings, and spoken or written words relies on the particular temporal and spatial context, but material things were made and used in patterned ways as they were enmeshed in regional or global interests. Moreover, the millions of people involved in Atlantic World slavery actively engaged in the material world of things, places, and people should be comprehended as such without being removed from the context of lived experience.

Reference Works

No single reference work attempts a comprehensive review of the material culture of slavery, but several sources provide reasonably broad coverage as a starting point for beginners and advanced scholars alike. From a British Atlantic perspective Hamilton and Blyth 2007 supplies an extensive list of objects related to slavery and abolition housed in the National Maritime Museum. For the material lives of slaves in the United States, the encyclopedic Katz-Hyman and Rice 2011 has concise summaries of many different objects. Vlach 1978 reviews several classes of Afro-American decorative arts, and from a collector’s perspective, the volumes by Goings 1994 and Montgomery 2001 offer guides to memorabilia related to enslaved and free African-Americans. Chapters in Paquette and Smith 2010 and other articles in Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History are a concise reference to the Atlantic World context of material culture. Samford 1996 and Orser 1998 cover the origins and main themes of historical archaeology research at plantations, which combines anthropological theories and the use of historical documents in studying the material culture of slaves and elites, by recording landscapes and surface remains and conducting systemic excavations in the field. Fennell 2011 reviews major areas of material culture research by archaeologists, as the initial studies at North American and Caribbean plantations in the 1960s and 1970s have increased to an African-Atlantic scale. For historical archaeologists and historians researching in Africa, edited collections DeCorse 2001 (cited under Slave Trading and the Middle Passage), Ogundiran and Falola 2007 (cited under Edited Collections), and Monroe and Ogundiran 2012 (cited under Slave Trading and the Middle Passage) suffice as reference works.

  • Fennell, Christopher C. “Early African America: Archaeological Studies of Significance and Diversity.” Journal of Archaeological Research 19 (2011): 1–49.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10814-010-9042-x

    Review article focusing on African-American archaeology in the United States and Canada, c. 1400 to 1865. Synthesizes research on slave material culture including bioarchaeology, diet, landscapes, pottery, tobacco pipes, and households.

  • Goings, Kenneth W. Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    A guide to collectible objects and printed materials produced from the 1880s to the 1950s, which defined and perpetuated stereotypes about African Americans, many of which originated in or emerged from the period of slavery.

  • Hamilton, Douglas J., and Robert J. Blyth, eds. Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum. Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2007.

    A catalogue of over six hundred objects, paintings, prints, and drawings in the National Maritime Museum’s collection, accompanied by ten essays. Catalogue information and color images represent the brutality of slavery as well as resistance and abolition movements during the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades.

  • Katz-Hyman, Martha B., and Kym S. Rice, eds. World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    Two volumes of entries related to material culture of plantation slavery in the United States. An essential starting point for further study, with concise summaries and major references for each object type.

  • Montgomery, Elvin. Collecting African American History. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2001.

    Authored by a collector of African-American material culture, with sections devoted to material culture types related to the slavery and post-emancipation periods in the United States. Over three hundred images, with advice for collectors regarding restoration, storage, and identifying forgeries.

  • Orser, Charles E., Jr. “The Archaeology of the African Diaspora.” Annual Review of Anthropology 27 (1998): 63–83.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.27.1.63

    This reviews the central areas of research in African diaspora archaeology as of the late 1990s. Themes include debates about the presence of Africanisms in ceramics and mortuary practices, free African settlements and material culture of resistance, the role of race in interpreting objects and landscapes, and archaeology’s relevance to the public.

  • Paquette, Robert L., and Mark M. Smith, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    This comprehensive handbook of slavery in the Americas, consisting of thirty-three chapters with notes and bibliography for each contribution, is a valuable reference for understanding the broader political-economic and cultural contexts of slavery. No individual chapter specifically addresses material culture but references to objects appear throughout.

  • Samford, Patricia. “The Archaeology of African-American Slavery and Material Culture.” William and Mary Quarterly 53.1 (1996): 87–114.

    DOI: 10.2307/2946825

    This article reviews the initial archaeological research at sites of African-American slavery, particularly the Chesapeake and American South, and outlines major types of material culture that have been studied including locally made ceramic pots and tobacco pipes, religious objects, clothing, and musical instruments.

  • Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978.

    Based on a 1978 exhibition, this volume identifies and analyzes the African heritage of Afro-American material culture, supported by historical and contemporary sources. Many photographs, drawings, and images illustrate the objects, mostly from North America with a few African examples, which include basketry, instruments, wood carving, quilts, pottery, boats, blacksmithing, architecture, and graveyard decorations.

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