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Maxwell School
Maxwell / Department of Anthropology

Colonialism, Capitalism and Active Responses to Them

Historical archaeology sheds significant light on both the formation of colonialism and capitalism as well as its impact at the local, regional, and global levels.  In the Americas, archaeological studies of contact period sites illuminate lifeways of the colonizing setters, the indigenous peoples encountered, and the laborers who were brought in to facilitate both colonial and capital objectives.  While archaeology can be used to explore all of these contexts, it is particularly valuable in accessing and assessing the material record of laborers.  The conditions and settings of the lives of laborers are often are missing both from the historical record and physical evidence of their presence (housing etc.)  is often not immediately recognizable in the residual built environment which is often still dominated by mansion houses of planters, and fields in which plantation products are still grown.  However, the ruins of house sites and a tangible material record of their lives survives in archaeological deposits from laborer living areas. 

In the Department of Anthropology at Syracuse our focus on archaeology of African and the African Diaspora brings issues of colonialism and capitalism squarely into focus in Africa and the Americas.  Through the exploration of West African towns associated with trading forts (Elmina, Ghana), Cuban Coffee plantations (Santa Ana de Biajacas), and Jamaican (Drax Hall, Seville) and Barbadian (Trents) sugar plantations Syracuse faculty have assessed colonial settings associated with social systems deeply embedded in the rise and spread of capitalism.  Currently studies in Barbados are examining the implications of the corporate structures of early seventeenth century settlements in Barbados and evaluating the revolutionary shift in capital production associated with the rapid rise of the sugar industry and its related shift in reliance on enslaved labor acquired from Africa.  The material record at these sites, and the many others studied by our faculty and students, reflect not just the commodities of trade, exchange, and use of materials; but, reflect the social and economic systems in which people lived and the inequality that was structured into the legal and economic systems of capitalism.

Our studies do not stop at simply identifying the role and impacts of colonialism and capitalism, or one directional outcomes.  Rather, we explore the role of individual and collective actions and responses to systemic structures of inequality.  We study both the deleterious impacts of colonialism and capitalism with respect to systems of inequality, but also explore the active role of individuals and communities in finding their own place in, around, and in resistance to these seemingly encompassing systems.  We explore the internal dynamics of African communities, the creative and internally defined modifications to houses and communities by enslaved laborers on Caribbean plantations, and the ways in which learned skills were parleyed by individuals and collective communities on the margins of plantation societies (East End Community, St. John); and in maritime based port town environments (Magens House, St. Thomas).  Moreover, we study the material record of social reformers and activists like Harriet Tubman (Harriet Tubman Home, Auburn) who not only secured personal freedom for herself and her family, but conducted others to freedom and continued to live the life of a continent us social advocate for women's rights and care for the elderly.  Her life, and those who she impacted are preserved in the archaeological record of the Harriet Tubman Home.