Archaeological Context

Excavation of the slave and tenant quarters at the Jordan Plantation has been underway for 14 years under the direction of Kenneth L. Brown at the University of Houston, Texas (Brown 1995; Brown and Cooper 1990). The quarters were occupied by slaves from 1848 to 1865 and by tenant farmers (many of whom were the same people) from 1865 to about 1888. Archaeologically, the Jordan site is unique in the American South - in its deposition (which seems to have been rather sudden), its preservation (which is remarkable) and in the ways in which it is being interpreted. It appears that in about 1888 the plantation's tenants moved out and took very few of their possessions with them. The quarters were then locked, abandoned, and, gradually, the decaying remains were flooded and silted over. The area was then essentially undisturbed until excavations began some 14 years ago.

The Jordan excavation represents one of the first times (if not the first time) that an explicitly contextual postprocessual approach (Hodder 1986) was used in American historical archaeology (Brown 1995; Brown and Cooper 1990). Since it was first reported in 1990 some archaeologists have attempted to use the site as a sort of 'Rosetta Stone' of African-American archaeology (see McKee 1994 for a discussion of these attempts). While this is certainly inappropriate, it is true that the approach used at the Jordan Plantation represents one of the first attempts at less Eurocentric ways of understanding African-American archaeological sites across the American south (for other examples see Ferguson 1992; Franklin 1997a; Samford (in press); Singleton 1988; Young 1997).

The deposit offers evidence of religious specialisation, occupational specialisation, political status and economic status, and indicates that these roles were very likely defined by the slaves and tenants themselves, not necessarily by the people who owned and, later, employed them (Brown 1995). The data from this site reject stereotypic and simplistic definitions of non-dominant individuals as victims who defined themselves in reaction to dominance, without any positive viewpoints of their own (Spencer-Wood 1992, 4). Rather, it suggests that some activities, many of African origin (such as shell and bone carving, healing, and metalworking), played a critical and increasingly important role in the survival of this African-American community.

For example, we've learned how a healer (a practitioner of African curing rituals from both Yoruba and Bakongo traditions; Thompson 1984) was probably a midwife as well as a founding member of what became the contemporary Grace Methodist Church (Ken Brown, pers. comm.). We've learned how John McNeill (the skilled enslaved carpenter who likely supervised the construction of the plantation house), became the Jordan Plantation's foreman after slavery ended. We've learned how his neighbour (probably George Holmes, born in Africa; Ken Brown, pers. comm.) carved and used African-style bone and shell objects as markers to indicate someone's leadership position within this community of people (Harris 1998). We've learned how an enslaved person was also a maker of guns and ammunition - and seems to have manipulated metal and fire in very 'African' ways (Garcia-Herreros 1998). While much of the information gathered about individual, named people is speculative, the data reveal much about how individual actors both maintained and subverted 'Self'-defined and 'Other'-defined categories to create themselves and their worlds (Rorty 1991a).

The roles defined for (and by) members of the plantation owner's family were also fluid and sometimes ambiguous. Levi Jordan's granddaughter, Sallie McNeill (although certainly a woman of her times in her attitudes towards race and women's roles) was, in 1858, one of the first female graduates of what became Baylor University. Despite considerable family pressure, she refused to marry and left an eloquent, moving diary that reveals much about her life on the plantation and her internal struggle to deal with changes in her world that were caused by the American Civil War and its aftermath (Hill 1997). Her cousin, Calvin McNeill, was a founding member of a local white supremacist organisation. But his best friend and hunting companion was Jerry Johnson, an ex-slave, who once loaned Calvin money to build a new house after his was destroyed by fire (Creighton 1975).

McWillie Martin (also a grandchild of Levi Jordan) inherited the plantation in the late 19th century and was very active in various white supremacist activities in that period (including lynching) (Barnes 1998). However, before his death in 1937 he expressed apparently sincere regret for the actions of his youth - regret that we learned about from a relative of the aforementioned George Holmes. The network of relationships between people that existed during slavery and afterward was, and is, complex, overlapping, and shifting.

Because of the richness of this archaeological and historical data, a public interpretation of this site could be very different from the more typical 'fancy house' plantation interpretations in the American south, which tend to focus exclusively on the lives of planters and their families (Loewen (in press); McDavid 1997a). The skewed emphasis of typical interpretations has the effect of presenting dominant ideologies as natural and inevitable (Handsman and Leone 1989; Leone and Potter 1994; Leone, Potter, and Shackel 1987; Potter 1991; Potter 1994, 334-35) while a public interpretation of this site (focusing on the lives of both planters and workers as well as their influences on each other) could offer an opportunity to begin deconstructing those ideologies.

Go to the Levi Jordan Web Site


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Last updated: Wed Apr 28 1999