CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews


Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm

By Alexandra A. Chan. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007; xiv + 284 pp., illustrations, maps; cloth $48.00.

Ten Hills Farms, the estate of the Royall Family of colonial Massachusetts from 1737 to 1775, is the fascinating backdrop for Alexandra A. Chan’s Slavery in the Age of Reason to provide “a historical archaeological investigation of colonial New England slavery”(p. 3). Ten Hills Farm provides one of the last intact examples of agricultural slavery in New England and as such offers a rare opportunity to investigate the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the region. Using the 65,000 artifacts collected from archeological digs conducted at the farm in summer 1999, 2000, and 2001, Chan reconstructs what she calls “one of the most neglected aspects of New England history and development”(p. 8) by using the materials as “primary evidence . . . of people forgotten or represented only indirectly in the written record” (p. 3).

Interweaving historical records such as contemporary newspapers, the writings of local antiquarians, letters, wills, and estate records, Chan “reads” the recovered objects and forms a nuanced picture of the interactions of Ten Hills Farm’s historical residents within larger New England colonial society. Chan argues that the Royalls and their enslaved workers were involved in a fluid process of racialization — the creation of “white” and “black” public and private identities in a particular time and place—in which meanings were expressed through the possession and use of things, such as dishware, toys, tools, clothing, plants, and other objects. Slavery in the Age of Reason uses these objects not only to tell the story of the Royalls but also show how the enslaved “sought, within practical limits, to structure their lives meaningfully and to create personal identities and relationships that belied their status as slaves” (p. 173–174).

Chan convincingly argues that the objects found around the main Royall House, such as an iron bootspur and a brass shoe buckle, are the material survivals of how the Royall family defined and maintained their identity as members of the elite in a period of ascendant European colonialism: white, wealthy, philanthropists, merchants, slave traders, and slaveholders. I appreciated Chan’s awareness that in describing the Royall family identity as colonial elites, her analysis was skewed toward a patriarchal perspective, primarily because contemporary gender ideology produced male-dominated documents as source material. Slavery in the Age of Reason states this gender bias without negating the importance of Chan’s analysis or denying the role of the Royall women in the creation and maintenance of the family’s colonial identity.

Taking a new approach of reading identity through material culture, Chan writes in a narrative style that is both accessible and engaging to non-archeologists. The inclusion of a fictive vignette of Jemmy, an imaginative account that includes the historical enslaved worker’s use of artifacts found at the site, illustrates how broken shards of dishware and an abandoned set of marbles can articulate a moment in the daily lives of the enslaved. Through the vignette, Slavery in the Age of Reason effectively establishes associations between the Ten Hill Farm’s historical residents and the collected artifacts. For the contemporary reader, the book personalizes the meaning of recovered remains into tangible, lived experiences.

The connection to historic preservation is clear: the valuable knowledge presented by Slavery in the Age of Reason would not have been possible without the preservation of Ten Hills Farm and the Royall House. In 1908, the Royall House Association bought the estate in Medford, Massachusetts and has since used it as a historic house museum, now called The Royall House and Slave Quarters. In 1962, the Isaac Royall House was designated a National Historic Landmark for its illustration of mid-Georgian architecture and its association with George Washington’s strategizing with Generals Lee and Stark during the 1775 Siege of Boston. The Royall House’s exceptional degree of historic integrity allowed new data to be recovered that became the basis for a new understanding of our collective past.

The excavation at the Royall House came about as a project by the Royall House Association to update interpretation at the historic site to capture the experiences of the African and Creole workers who labored at the farm and to explore the Royall’s place in New England mercantilism and the Atlantic slave trade. In 1999, the Royall House Association approached Professor Ricardo Elia at Boston University’s Department of Archeology to undertake the project. Chan participated in the project as a graduate student in Elia’s “Archaeological Ethics and the Law” seminar, before taking over direction of the excavations in summers 2000 and 2001.

The Royall House Association’s recognition of the past as a public heritage prompted the Ten Hills Farms’ stewards to pursue the opportunity to expand previously un-interpreted knowledge of colonial life for its visitors. Chan’s Slavery in the Age of Reason, an outgrowth of her dissertation research, extends dissemination of that knowledge and understanding, first demonstrated by the Royall House Association through interpretation at Ten Hills Farm, to a larger, appreciative audience.

Turkiya L. Lowe
National Conference of State Historic
Preservation Officers