Way back in July 2016, we escorted a film crew around the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for a tour of archaeological sites. The resulting documentary, “Escape to the Great Dismal Swamp,” finally aired on Smithsonian Channel last month.
A version (which I have not seen) aired last year in Germany and France under the slightly problematic* title “City of Lost Slaves.” With artifacts from Dan Sayers’ dissertation work on permanent display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it’s exciting to have the US version broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel.
As with almost all documentaries, some aspects of the history and the archaeology get short shrift (I’ve already gotten emails from viewers asking why we claim an Archaic projectile point could have been used by 18th and 19th century Maroons). Some scenes of us in the field feel a bit staged (they were, and we’re not actors). The film producers have limited time, a specific audience in mind, and other constraints.
I’m pleased the producers rely so heavily on interviews with historians and curators from the NMAAHC and other African Americans who have scholarly or personal connections to the Dismal. Their expertise provides important context to the story of the Dismal. And, representation matters. The crew of archaeologists in the field that July were all white (this is one of the areas where GDSLS and Swampscapes could and should do be doing better). I’m glad the tone of the film is (and the last scenes at the museum show) scholars from different fields working together to learn about this history rather than just ‘look what the (white) archaeologists say.’
It’s hard to envision Maroon life in the Swamp from a few soil stains and bits of rock and clay pipe. The re-enactments really do bring the Maroon story to life. I wish I could chat with a few of the actors: I’m curious to hear what they thought of their roles and what they knew about the Dismal Swamp Maroons before being cast in the film.
Overall, I think Escape to the Great Dismal Swamp is an accessible, interesting and reasonably accurate presentation of the archaeology and history of African American resistance in the Dismal.
*First, no city. Small settlements, maybe. But definitely not a city. Second, Maroons were only ‘lost’ from the perspective of the enslavers who claimed to own them as property. Third, ‘lost slaves’ denies the agency of the real people whose histories we study and puts emphasis on the enslavement system rather than on the acts of resistance in which Maroons engaged.