ESTATE LITTLE PRINCESS ON ST. CROIX, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS—Justin Dunnavant crouches in the earth beside the crumbling stone wall, carefully scraping at a shallow, 2-meter-long rectangular pit with his trowel. The sides of the pit need to be perfectly straight before the arrival of his excavation crew: nineteen middle and high school students from the Caribbean Center for Boys & Girls of the Virgin Islands in Christiansted. When the pit meets Dunnavant’s standards, he sweeps the loose dirt into a plastic bucket and gently sifts it through a rectangle of wire mesh to separate any artifacts. Then he stands back, ready for the teenagers to take over the exacting work of excavating what was once a small house.
To many people, the artifacts that have emerged from the excavation wouldn’t look like much: fish and pig bones from centuries-old meals, buttons that fell off of clothing, bits of coarse local pottery along with shards of smooth, painted porcelain. But to Dunnavant, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, they are treasures that offer an intimate look into some of the most enigmatic lives in modern history: those of the enslaved Africans who once lived here.
Enslaved Africans lived and worked on Estate Little Princess starting from the plantation’s founding in 1749 until slavery was abolished on St. Croix in 1848. At the plantation’s peak in 1772, documents record 141 enslaved people living there. They were forced to carry out the punishing labor of planting and harvesting sugarcane and crushing and boiling it to make sugar and rum. Their grueling work generated vast fortunes for the estate’s white planters and their home country of Denmark, which ruled the island from 1672 to 1917.
The written histories of this plantation and more than 1000 others like it throughout the Caribbean note facts such as the number of enslaved people who lived there, their genders and ages, and their places of origin. But the records reveal almost nothing about their daily lives. Here, enslaved Africans married, had children, made friends, and built families under the threat of being killed or sold away. They grew their own food, collected water, shaped and fired new styles of pottery out of local clay, raised livestock, and likely fished and trapped wild game. Enslaved Africans sold their surplus crops and crafts at markets they organized, using their earnings to buy items for themselves and their homes.
To glimpse those lives, archaeology is required. „One of the very few ways to get at the experiences of enslaved Africans is to look at [what] they left behind,“ Dunnavant says. That’s why he and archaeologist Ayana Omilade Flewellen of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, spent 4 weeks directing excavations here this summer, the third of five planned dig seasons. The team is part of a wave of archaeologists around the Caribbean focused on studying not only the institution of slavery, but also the daily lives of enslaved Africans in all the intimacy and texture left out of history. Seen through Dunnavant’s and Flewellen’s eyes, the lost buttons, cooked bones, and shards of pots and porcelain are vital clues to how enslaved Africans maintained their individuality and humanity within a system designed to strip them of both. And by studying the vegetation, water systems, and other environmental features of plantations, these archaeologists are also documenting how slavery literally reshaped the islands—and the world.
„These stories are not going to be lost,“ says Alicia Odewale, an African diaspora archaeologist at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma who works on Estate Little Princess with Dunnavant and Flewellen. „They are going to be remembered.“
Estate Little Princess and its island, St. Croix, were once at the center of the world economy. For more than 300 years, thousands of European ships sailed to the Caribbean carrying enslaved Africans and sailed away full of the sugar, coffee, and other cash crops their labor produced. „Slavery drove the world economy, and it permeated all corners of the globe. And the weight of it was solidly in the Caribbean,“ says Jillian Galle, director of the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) at the Monticello plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia.
„Almost every ship operating during the slavery era was in one way or another involved in the slave trade,“ Dunnavant says.
Between 1500 and 1875, about 4.8 million enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean, compared with about 389,000 brought to the United States. Perhaps another million people died on the way to those destinations.
Dunnavant and Flewellen plan to eventually document every step in the lives of the enslaved Africans who lived here, beginning with the ships that brought them to the port of Christiansted. Archaeologists from the U.S. National Park Service have already identified artifacts from shipwrecks near a small island off of the coast, which could be from documented wrecks of ships carrying enslaved Africans.
Once on St. Croix, enslaved Africans were sold to estates around the island, including Estate Little Princess, which is on the coast 3 kilometers northwest of Christiansted and is now a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. A census documented 38 houses in the estate’s village, but many have been demolished. The team found the ruins of only five in the form of still-standing walls made of stone and chunks of coral harvested from the island’s many reefs. To find out how far the village once extended, archaeologists worked with the conservancy staff this season to cut trails through the tangle of vegetation around the ruins. They dug test pits every 10 meters, searching for clusters of artifacts that could indicate that people once lived nearby.
Then, the team zeroed in on one of the best preserved houses. The roof is long vanished, but the walls are high enough to show the outlines of some of its doors and windows. Because of the cramped, 6-by-3-meter quarters, the residents likely cooked outside. That’s why the excavation pit Dunnavant cleaned up for the middle and high schoolers is outside the house, right up against its highest standing wall. They dig and sift for artifacts with guidance from archaeologist Alexandra Jones, founder of the educational nonprofit Archaeology in the Community in Washington, D.C.
Just on the other side of the same wall, undergraduate students from historically black colleges and universities dig a 1-square-meter pit inside the house. This field school is the first experience with archaeology for most, but they quickly become an efficient team. As two students scrape thin layers of earth into buckets, others sift it through the wire screens and keep a sharp eye out for artifacts. Because the plantation is much too recent for radiocarbon dating, the archaeologists will create a timeline by tracing the changing styles of artifacts, including ceramics and buttons. Missing even one tiny object could mean losing a world of priceless information.
It’s a lot of trust to place in students, but Dunnavant and Flewellen, co-founders of the Society of Black Archaeologists, have made those twin training programs a priority. Less than 1% of U.S. archaeologists identify as black, something Dunnavant and Flewellen want to change. „Since the late 1970s, archaeologists have been asking questions about black culture and identity formation in the African diaspora,“ largely through research on plantations, Flewellen says. But, „There hasn’t been a rise in actually training people of African descent to ask those questions themselves.“
To sort their finds, the students sit at folding tables in front of buildings that were once the planters‘ mansions, emptying bags of artifacts onto plastic trays. „No one has touched these artifacts for 200 years, so it’s really important what happens to them next,“ Odewale says. She helps the students sort objects by type: glass, bone, metal, ceramic, and the local pottery made from coarse clay and fired in pits covered with brush, called Afro-Crucian ware.
All those artifacts will eventually be entered into DAACS, the digital archive of artifacts from sites of slavery, which includes material from 53 U.S. sites and 24 across six Caribbean islands. The Estate Little Princess finds will be a valuable addition because the archaeologists here have already turned up a stunningly diverse collection of artifacts, says Khadene Harris, an archaeologist at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and a former postdoc at DAACS. „They’ve got almost everything“ you could imagine on a Caribbean plantation: glass bottles for storing water or medicine, locally made pottery, animal bones, buttons and hook-and-eye fasteners for clothes, nails, fragments of pipe stems, and even expensive imports such as porcelain—and, as of this summer, a single pewter spoon, likely from Europe. „St. Croix is a really well-connected island,“ Harris says.
The planters didn’t buy those items, contrary to a once-common assumption. When researchers first began to excavate on plantations in the 1970s, they thought all the objects in enslaved laborers‘ houses were provided to them by the planter class, says Theresa Singleton, an archaeologist at Syracuse University in New York. But further research in archives and the field revealed that enslaved Africans in both the Caribbean and the southeastern United States bought their possessions. On St. Croix and other Caribbean islands, enslaved Africans—alongside free people of color, traveling traders, and poor and middleclass white residents—shopped at markets often run by free and enslaved black women. There, enslaved people sold surplus crops or crafts and bought items, including porcelain and tobacco pipes.
Enslaved Africans‘ level of economic access varied by island and historical period and could be severely restricted. On a 19th century plantation in Cuba where Singleton has excavated, enslaved workers had few possessions. Their village was surrounded by a wall, a stark symbol of how planters controlled their movements. Singleton thinks that tight control was a reaction to an 1825 rebellion and ongoing raids by those who had escaped.
Even on St. Croix, where enslaved Africans had some purchasing power, excavated objects are often small and unassuming—but they have tales to tell. For example, Flewellen studies the buttons, beads, and other items of personal adornment found here. The team found several finished bone buttons, but no larger flat pieces of bone from which the buttons would have been carved. That means the enslaved people on the estate were likely buying or trading for buttons, not making them. Each one, therefore, is a relic of an economic and stylistic choice an enslaved person made about how to spend their money and express their identity within the constraints of a brutal system.
„When we ask questions about the human experience of enslavement, how people moved their bodies around this landscape, how they dressed their bodies … we’re trying to figure out, what were their interior lives?“ Flewellen says.
Back at the sorting table, one student holds up an unusual artifact, wondering which pile to put it in. It’s a small, perfectly round ball, about the size of a chickpea. Odewale rushes over to examine it. The ball is heavy in her palm and looks to have a dark hue beneath the dusting of dirt on its surface. She gasps. „That’s a musket ball!“
But then she gently scrubs its surface with a toothbrush. As the dirt falls away, what emerges isn’t the black surface of a lead bullet, but rather the tan of local clay. The ball is a solid clay marble, perhaps evidence of children playing or adults gambling. But it may also have been functional. Odewale knows from oral histories that enslaved Africans dropped spare clay marbles into opaque ceramic water vessels. When the marbles started to clink against the sides of the pot, it was a signal that the water level was getting low.
„Innovation!“ she cries. „I’m telling you, geniuses were out here at work. All we have to do is try and listen.“
The experiences of enslaved Africans aren’t preserved only in the objects they once owned; they are also visible in the landscape of Estate Little Princess itself. Sugarcane required an exceptional amount of hard labor to cultivate and process, and planters chased sky-high profits in a newly globalized market by keeping expenses as low as possible. „Sugar and enslaved labor go hand in hand,“ says Douglas Armstrong, a Syracuse University archaeologist who studies plantations on Barbados.
On many islands, enslaved Africans were forced to clearcut extensive forests to make way for cane fields. Sugarcane is a notoriously thirsty crop, so the enslaved dug irrigation ditches and changed the course of rivers to feed the new fields. They cut more trees to fire the boilers used to cook the cane, which burned day and night. „There is something especially perverse about coercing enslaved laborers into destroying the environment that they rely on,“ Harris says.
Dunnavant calls that work terraforming, and on St. Croix, „It created a whole new environment“—the deforested island of today. He’s trying to understand the details of that environment, including where Estate Little Princess got its freshwater and what crops enslaved Africans cultivated. St. Croix and other colonial islands required plantations to have provision grounds—gardens where enslaved Africans grew their own food, another place where they managed to exercise some personal agency.
On a plantation called Morne Patate on Dominica, Mark Hauser, an archaeologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, discovered a provision ground buried under a field that is still cultivated. There, he and archaeologist Sarah Oas of Arizona State University in Tempe found seeds and other plant remains from all over the world: maize from the Americas, guava from the Caribbean, barley from Europe, and millet and sorghum, which were staples in Africa. That experimentation with diverse crops led to the creation of a new Caribbean cuisine, guided by the decisions and tastes of enslaved Africans. The researchers even found traces of coffee, a cash crop grown on the plantation, in enslaved laborers‘ homes—perhaps a sign they were growing surpluses and selling them in local markets.
Dunnavant hopes to survey the whole of Estate Little Princess next year, including around the ruins of a mill and a rum factory. That’s an important next step, says Kenneth Kelly, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia who studies plantations on Guadeloupe and Martinique. „Enslaved people were using a lot of the landscape,“ he says, sometimes in ways they tried to keep hidden. On the Trents plantation on Barbados, for example, Armstrong slid down a steep gully and found a cave full of animal bones, charred wood from fires, and pieces of iron, including blades. Perhaps enslaved Africans were planning an escape or rebellion, or perhaps it was a shrine where they could practice rituals brought from West Africa, where iron had religious significance. „No matter how you look at it, it’s a form of resistance,“ Armstrong says.
Even after slavery was abolished on St. Croix in 1848 and the island became a U.S. territory in 1917, this estate produced sugar—until the 1960s. Documents record that many of the newly freed stayed on the estate and continued to work as paid laborers, as they did on plantations all over the island. Although some houses in the village were demolished in the 20th century to drive out squatters, the homes that still stand were inhabited until the 1960s or even later; the archaeologists unearthed batteries and fragments of a boom box.
„For us in the 21st century, we would think that we would want to leave right away [after emancipation]. But the question is, to where?“ says William White, an archaeologist at UC Berkeley who works here. „Starting over is a huge risk,“ especially because slavery wasn’t abolished in the Caribbean until Cuba became the last island to outlaw it in 1886.
Still, the newly freed were eager to escape the constant surveillance of the planter class, Harris says. When slavery was abolished on Dominica in 1834, many laborers stayed on a plantation Harris studies called Bois Cotlette. But they moved out of the old village and built new houses in the middle of the fields where they worked, farther from the planters‘ houses. She has found the remains of raised platforms made of stone and earth, on top of which the newly freed built homes. Such homes could be quickly disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere when occupants wanted to move or were evicted. „I interpret that as free people wanting more autonomy and more space,“ Harris says.
Back on Estate Little Princess, the students finish excavating for the day, sieving the last buckets of dirt for the unassuming treasures they contain. The cleaned and sorted artifacts are put into carefully labeled plastic bags; they’ll be stored at Odewale’s lab in Oklahoma until a secure facility can be built on St. Croix. Safe storage here is a challenge, as hurricanes Irma and Maria showed in 2017. Those storms hit St. Croix hard, leaving still-visible scars and damaged buildings. The hurricane winds felled the once-abundant mango trees, and papaya trees have sprung up in their place, changing the estate’s ecology once again.
One way to tell St. Croix’s story is tragedy after tragedy. But the archaeologists see it differently: an island and its people equally defined by resilience—and survival.