Looking at Space: Identifying Activity Areas with GIS

One of the major components of understanding the lives of slaves and tenant farmers at St. Mary’s Manor is understanding how they used space before and after Emancipation. This is something that we have examined on multiple scales, such as how their homes were organized on the plantation, or how they traversed the landscape outside the plantation differently. Understanding how space is used on smaller scales, such as how African Americans organized the spaces inside and outside of their quarters, may give us a glimpse into how they negotiated slavery and poverty, ways that their spiritual lives are demonstrated, the type and level of different activities that they participated in each day, and level of independence or separation they sought during and after slavery.

The GIS map of the site, including the excavated units, possible 19th century features, and the projected structures.

There are two important steps to identifying these activity areas through the material record, and each requires the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Software. In this case, we are greatly indebted to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and their Digital History Center for providing access to and expertise with this technology. This software allows archaeologists to tie different types of data sets to spatial coordinates. This means we can see how similar artifacts cluster across space. The places where these artifacts cluster indicate different types of human activity. The first step, therefore, is to build a map of the site so that we can link our data to it.

Learn more about slavery at St. Mary’s Manor

The second step is to define what types of artifacts correspond to what activities, and to input these artifacts into the GIS. We have a number of questions that relate to different types of questions. Some of these are architectural, in particular we are curious about what types of changes may have been made to the quarters after Emancipation, such as the addition of wood floors or glass windows. Examining concentrations of window glass, therefore, should indicate if windows had been present. Other questions include where social or work areas may have been: did these activities take place indoors our outside? Did they happen in the front or back yards? Did these positions change after Emancipation? Looking for items such as musical instruments, tobacco pipes, bottle glass, and children’s toys may help identify these areas. Another common feature of slave quarters is the presence of swept yards. Looking for areas of low artifact concentrations surrounding the yards may indicate these activities.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share some of our results from these tests. We were more successful in some cases then we were in others, and we’ll discuss some of the difficulties that we have run into due to the nature of our data sets. Of course, this is part of the process of analyzing archaeological data: it may not always give you conclusive answers about human behavior. In some instances, it has taken the combination of the archaeological data with historical photographs and oral histories to draw conclusions about the activities taking place, in others, we have been left scratching our heads.

 Talk Together

How do you think the enslaved and tenant laborers at this site may have used their space differently? What types of artifacts do you think may show us different activity areas? How do you use the space inside and around your house?

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