By Paula Neely

This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture wanted an authentic piece of a slave ship to use in an exhibit about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its curators surveyed maritime archaeologists and historians around the world, and they searched the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database for leads on wrecks, but to no avail. It became apparent to them that excavated slave wrecks were incredibly rare, especially ones that were excavated by professional archaeologists, said Paul Gardullo, a curator at the museum and director of its Center for the Study of Global Slavery. Although there were over 10,000 slave ships and 1,000 documented wrecks spanning three centuries, very few of the wrecks had been identified and excavated. “There had been more studies of [ships] in bogs in Ireland at that time and…Civil War ships, and Viking ships,” according to marine archaeologist Stephen Lubkemann of George Washington University. “The neglect of this made no sense,” he said. “There was a huge gap in our field.”

National Park Service archaeologist Meredith Hardy (right) trains researcher at Christiansted National Historic Site in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. | Credit: Susana Pershern, National Park Service
Students learn how to document the slave ship wrecks during the Youth Diving With A Purpose training conducted by the National Park Service. | Credit: Brett Seymour, National Park Service
Alexandra Jones (center), with the Society of Black Archaeologists, trains students at St. Croix. | Credit: Alicia Odewale
These iron ballast bars were recovered from the São José wreck site in Cape Town, South Africa. Ballasts bars were used on slave ships to increase or decrease weight as needed depending on how many slaves were on board. | Credit: Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History And Culture

As part of his search, Gardullo connected with Lubkemann, who with fellow marine archaeologists Dave Conlin of the National Park Service (NPS), and Jaco Boshoff of the Iziko Museums of South Africa, had formed an innovative project several years prior dedicated to searching for shipwrecks from the most horrific and extensive trade of humans in world history. These connections led to the formation the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers and organizations that provides a comprehensive approach to exploring and sharing this history. “Our work is bigger than just a search for shipwrecks,” Gardullo said. “It is about transforming the field and the way we talk about the slave trade and its connection to our world and ourselves.”

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