'Literary Archaeology': Exploring the Lived Environment of the Slave

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


Between the 16th and 19th centuries it is estimated that 12 million people were captured as slaves or sold into slavery in a trade that took them from their homes in Africa to plantations in the Americas. Despite having been much studied and debated, the slave trade continues to provoke intense academic and public interest because there is still so much we do not know about slavery. While historical documentation can tell us about the workings of the slave trade and the slave owners, we know very little about the everyday experience of slaves from their own perspective. What was it like to be enslaved? How did the natural environment, landscape, living conditions and diet that slaves experienced affect their health, wellbeing and emotional lives?

This project aims to bring together archaeological scientists, writers and literary scholars to explore what it was like to be enslaved. Both scientists and humanities scholars have attempted to understand this experience: archaeologists examine the physical human skeletal remains of the enslaved, uncovering details about the birth place, health, well-being and traumatic injuries sustained by the slaves. In contrast, writers combine existing historical information with their own imaginative impulses to represent individual experiences of slavery. While archaeologists' and writers' aims are similar, their methods are different. We aim to begin a dialogue between these groups, to explore how literary and archaeological narratives of slave lives might influence and inform one another to improve our understanding of what is was like to be a slave.

We have three main aims:

1. to stimulate new ways of thinking about and researching the lived environment of slaves.
We plan to hold a series of workshops between archaeological scientists and creative writers from the Bristol based collective Our Stories Make Waves. Questions we will ask each other include: What was it like to be a slave? How can the information provided by archaeological science inspire and inform new creative pieces? What is it that authors really want to know about the lives of slaves that archaeology has not yet addressed? Could literary representations of slavery provoke new questions in archaeological science? Through close collaboration between the writers and archaeological scientists we will identify gaps in our knowledge, and consider how they might be addressed through archaeological and literary methods combined.

2. to explore the intersection between archaeological science and literary studies and to stimulate new models for collaboration.
To what extent do literary authors engage with archaeological science? How do archaeologists use literature (consciously or otherwise) in their academic and popular writing? We will ask such questions not only with reference to the lived environment of the slave, but also explore them more widely through holding an academic conference. We will investigate the problems which arise when researchers from such different disciplines work together, and provide a forum to discuss how to overcome these problems.

3. to promote public understanding of slavery and of how archaeologists and authors understand the past.
We all know what it was like to be a slave... or do we? How is the public's understanding of the lives of slaves created? Through public events we will ask members of the public to think about how our knowledge of slavery is produced, and to consider the interplay between the arts and sciences. The events will include performances of original work produced by the creative writers as a result of their encounter with the archaeologists.

This project has the potential to change the way that both academics and the public think about the relationship between the arts and sciences. It also presents us with the opportunity to think in new ways about the lives of slaves, ways which involve emotion and imagination as well as scientific analysis.

Planned Impact

There are four primary beneficiaries from our research: the creative writers from Our Stories Make Waves, Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives, Bristol's black and minority ethnic populations and the general public, all of whom will benefit from the research throughout the duration of the project but also in the years beyond.

The project will further raise the profile of several writers from Our Stories Make Waves, a group of Bristol based BME writers and artists. Ros Martin, Jenny Davis, Edson Burton, Valda Jackson, Ralph Hoyte, Vanessa Kisuule and Cedar Monteith are all active and established writers whose work often engages with Bristol's imperial history. This project will enable their work to reach new audiences through performance and exhibition at public events at Bristol's MShed Museum and Georgian House Museum and through the project website which will publish their creative outputs alongside more informal reflections on the process. The opportunity for selected pieces to form part of the permanent exhibition at the MShed will also create a powerful and long-lasting legacy for these writers' work.

The project will also benefit Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives. Working in partnership with the Senior Curator World Cultures and the Senior Curator for Archaeology, we will produce dynamic and exciting public events which will stimulate interest in the museums' permanent collections at the Georgian House Museum and the MShed. The project will raise the profile of the museums' existing exhibitions and collections about the slave trade, while creating new material which will enrich the links between slavery, Bristol and local BME populations which the museums have already established. This project will also coincide with a planned major exhibition on 'Buried Bones' and we intend to contribute to the events planned for the launch of that exhibition in April 2017. This will benefit Bristol museums by enabling them to develop further ties with university researchers and integrate public engagement with academic research into their planned programme.

Bristol's black and minority ethnic communities will benefit from the opportunity to discover more about the lived environment of slaves and how academics and artists produce knowledge about this. Bristol has an active BME community, many of whom have ancestral links to Africa and/or the Caribbean and would therefore have a particular interest in the research. This project has the potential to impact on how this community understands the lives of slaves while creating important links between the university, Bristol museums and harder to reach communities.

Finally, the general public will benefit from the opportunity not only to further their understanding of transatlantic slavery and how we think about past lives, but to consider how interdisciplinary working - that is the application of methods from literary studies and archaeology - can productively come together to enrich the nation's cultural knowledge. Given the increasing emphasis on interdisciplinarity within universities today, it seems apt that the public should gain some sense of what can be achieved when different disciplines come together to tackle a shared problem, in this case the lived environment of the slave. By creating stimulating and thought-provoking opportunities for engagement and debate, the public's understanding of slavery - a topic which remains emotive, contentious and much debated, particularly in the city of Bristol - will be enhanced and the project will contribute to the nation's ongoing negotiation of how slavery should be remembered and acknowledged.


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Title Seven pieces of creative writing 
Description The writers involved in the project have each produced a creative piece of writing which has been published on the project website 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The pieces were read at two public events in Bristol and these readings were also shown on BBC Points West news programme which ran a segment on the project in October 2016. 
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/research/literary-archaeology/creative-writing/
Description The writers involved in the project have gone on to work independently with Bristol museums.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural

Description Public events at MShed Museum and Georgian House museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Events for the public
Can we know what is was like to be enslaved? A (public) discussion
Saturday 8 October 2pm, Studio Space, MShed Museum
We all know what is was like to be enslavedor do we? Popular films such as 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup's memoir, give us some idea about the lives of slaves in the United States. But for the enslaved in the Caribbean and Africa, there are few written accounts about their lives and those slaves that did have the chance to tell their story were often limited by slave owners and publishers in what they were able to say. This discussion will consider how, in the absence of written accounts, a group of contemporary writers have attempted to reconstruct the lives of the enslaved using archaeological evidence as a starting point. A panel of experts including archaeological scientists, literary scholars and creative writers will consider what science can tell us about slavery, the value of fictional accounts of slave lives, and how reconstructing these experiences impacts on our understanding of history. The discussion will open and close with a reading of new work by Ralph Hoyte and Vanessa Kisuule.
This event is free to attend and is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
BSL interpretation available if booked by 16 September 2016

Slavery: Close to the Bone
Saturday 22 October 2016, 2pm, Georgian House Museum
Come and hear readings and performances of new writing on the lives of the enslaved in the intimate setting of the Georgian House Museum. Inspired by archaeological evidence about the lives of the enslaved in Barbados and Gran Canaria, five writers will read extracts from their work simultaneously in different rooms in the house. Audience members will rotate between readings and rooms during the one hour performance and will be encouraged to reflect on the history of this house built on the profits of the slave trade and on how we remember past lives. With Jenny Davis, Cedar Monteith, Valda Jackson, Ros Martin and Edson Burton.

Over 60 attended first event, Around 150 attended the second. Both events were designed to spark questions in the audience about how literature and science can be used together to think about slavery. Feedback from the public is available through the project film
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/research/literary-archaeology/