New Dismal Swamp Documentary!

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.


New Publication!!


Swampscapes is currently on assignment at Rising Star in South Africa #homonaledi

The first peer-reviewed article of the Swampscapes project was published today online in the Journal of Wetland Archaeology.  You can access Wetlands in Defiance: Exploring African American Resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp here.

Here’s the abstract:

The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina (US) was home to disenfranchised Native Americans, enslaved canal company labourers and Maroons (‘fugitive slaves’) who lived in the wetlands temporarily and long term ca. 1607–1863. This paper discusses the methods and results of recent exploration and excavation in Virginia on the Williamson North and Williamson South sites. Publicly available LiDAR data and on-the-ground exploration facilitated identification of both potential archaeological sites and subtle terrain features across the rather inaccessible landscape. By studying the local place variations and connections between wet and dry spaces subsumed under the Swamp moniker, it is possible to glimpse a more nuanced historical landscape. Newly identified sites in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge demonstrate that the smallest islands in the Swamp and the wet areas surrounding them should not be overlooked as we work to understand the landscape of resistance created by Maroons.


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Journal of Wetland Archaeology on 05/09/2017, available online:

The Dismal Swamp at the Hampton History Museum

A few weeks ago, Erin, Craig, and I ventured into the Swamp to officially wrap up my dissertation fieldwork.  We backfilled the last few units, pulled the remaining flags and thanked the Dismal for collaborating in the Swampscapes endeavor.

On our way home from the 45th Middle Atlantic Archaeology Conference (where Erin and I participated in a great Biggs Ford panel and Craig won the CofMA student award for his paper on Josiah Henson– Congratulations Craig!), we stopped at the Hampton History Museum to visit a new exhibit featuring artifacts excavated by the GDSLS.  The Give Me Liberty: Fugitive Slaves and the Long Revolution Against Slavery exhibit explores African and African American resistance to enslavement in the Hampton, Virginia, area.  Museum registrar Bethany Austin came up to AU campus a while back to pick up artifacts and I was anxious to see them on display.


Sure, it’s nifty to see artifacts from enslaved laborers and Maroons from the Dismal on display.  That they are in a museum so close to the Swamp itself goes a long way toward helping bring this little-known chapter of local history to light.

Another highlight of the exhibit is a series of panels telling the stories of individual enslaved people from the Tidewater area and their personal fights and flights for freedom.

If you find yourself in the Hampton Roads/Virginia Beach/Colonial Williamsburg area in the next few months, I highly recommend a stop at the Hampton History Museum.


A glimpse of the Give Me Liberty exhibit at the Hampton History Museum



Have you met Charley?  Charley has been a quiet presence throughout my journey with the Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study and with swampscapes.  Often, Charley’s words will pop into my mind when I get figuratively bogged down starting at the GIS or literally bogged down tromping through the swamp.  I’d like to introduce you.

Charley’s story appeared in the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ Paper on 11 March 1859, 158 years (and 2 days) ago.  He was a ‘fugitive slave’ who escaped to Canada by way of the Great Dismal Swamp.  Recorded in the vernacular by Mrs. Knox of Boston, Charley talks about being hired out, separated from his wife, and refused permission to visit her.  He takes the decision to run away and secures a spot working in the Dismal for $2/month. There he encounters a vibrant community complete with Ole Fisher the preacher and families who “growed up in dat ar Dismal Swamp dat never seed a white man.”  Charley’s swamp is not without peril: the danger that a fellow laborer would “[be]tray de fugitives to dar masters” and of being discovered by slave catchers was real.


Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 11 March 1859, from America’s Historical Newspapers database

I feel sometimes uncomfortable quoting Charley’s words, reported as they were in a manner that says as much about abolitionist expectations of formerly enslaved people as it does about Charley, his experience and the language he used.  His narrative and the hints of the Maroon landscape he describes, though,  are invaluable reminders of the very real people whose stories we’re trying to recover through archaeology.

Serendipity in Misfiled Docs

act-1847Down here in the abyss of carefully parsing data to construct an argument worthy of a dissertation, it can be easy to lose sight of the point of it all.  “Ugh.  Who really cares about broken cobbles and the mean elevation of topographic zone A and an impossibly tiny flake of glass?”

Then, in search of a reference to quote, one might stumble across a forgotten scan from the archives.  “*$%&@,  why isn’t this in the folder with the rest of the archive scans?” 

So, feeling a bit bogged down by the previous train of thought, one might take the time to read the “new-found” document.  And that document might happen to be a copy of a pernicious, but telling, Act sent from a lawmaker in North Carolina to his counterpart in Virginia almost exactly 170 years ago (February 9, 1847).

“Whereas, many Slaves belonging to persons residing or having plantations in the neighborhood of the Great Dismal Swamp, have left the service of their masters and taken refuge in the said Swamp, and by the aid of free persons of color and of white men, have been and are enabled to elude all attempts to secure their persons and induce them again under the just authority of their masters, and their consorting with such where men and free persons of color, they remain setting at defiance the power of their masters, corrupting and seducing other slaves, and by their evil example and evil practice, lessening the due subordination, and greatly impairing the value of slaves in the district of Country bordering on the said Great Dismal Swamp, for remedy whereof,…”

Amongst all the Be it further enacteds are provisions for a registry of slaves and freedmen working in the Dismal, penalties of “thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back” for those who were found not properly documented, and fines for anyone found aiding unregistered slaves or runaways.  Free blacks who could not pay the fine were to be sold into slavery.

The law was called “An Act to Provide for the Apprehension of Runaway Slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp and for other purposes.”  By itself, it demonstrates that enough people were engaging in marronage in the Dismal to cause consternation in the state governments.  For me today, it is a potent reminder that the elevations, cobbles, and glass are clues to the lives of the real people who made lives in the Swamp because life outside it was untenable.  I’m still deep in the abyss but the light at the top, the point of it all, just became easier to see.

Raster vs Vector in the Swamp



Maybe my next project will be archaeology of skiing?  Or, archaeology on skis?

Working through a few ideas from my dissertation here…In GIS and mapping, data comes in two main types:  raster and vector.  Raster data assumes the earth is a continuous surface with various properties mapped as fields in pixels on that surface (Goodchild et al., 2007; Delameter et al., 2012; Weiner 1995).  The elevation information contained in a lidar layer is an example.  The entire surface being modeled, every pixel in the grid, is assigned some value; there can be no ’empty’ pixels. Therefore, “[t]he critical concept for theory is that for raster systems, meaning is independent of boundaries” (Zubrow 1990:70; italics in original).

Vector data is a collection of points, lines or polygons-locations shovel test pits or outlines of islands for example. If the entire surface is assigned some meaning with a raster system, only the objects themselves have meaning in a vector system (Zubrow 1990). For analytical purposes, this means the space between objects simply does not exist in a vector system.

That last bit has become troubling as I try to form coherent thoughts from what I’ve learned about the Swamp landscape during my fieldwork.  As much as we think in vector terms about islands (polygons), artifacts (points), and canals (lines), the Dismal itself is more than a bunch of dots and shapes strewn across a map.  It is, instead, a continuous surface where variables like wetness underfoot have different values in different locations.  Moreover, one does not beam from one island to the next (though that would be handy).  Rather, one steps through gradations of dry and wet terrain.  The wet space between islands not only exists but also is meaningful, emphasizing those islands as good places to build shelters, contributing to the wetlands character of the landscape, and more.

We’ve argued elsewhere maroons were not living their lives entirely on an isolated island, yet we continue to discuss and analyze (artificially?) bounded sites in the Swamp.  What else might we learn about the resistance landscapes of the Dismal if we conceptualized our data as raster of a wetland rather than vectors in a swamp?

Delameter, Paul L., Joseph P. Messina, Ashton M. Shortridge, and Sue C. Grady
 2012 Measuring Geographic Access to Health Care: Raster and Network-based Methods. International Journal of Health Geographics 11(15):1-18. http://www.ij-

Goodchild, Michael F.
 2010 Toward Geodesign: Repurposing cartography and GIS? Cartographic Perspectives 66:7-21.

Wiemer, R.
 1995 Another Way to Deal with Maps in Archaeological GIS. In Archaeology and Geographical Information Systems: A European Perspective. Gary Lock and Zoran Stancic, editors, pp. 303- 311. Taylor and Francis, London.

Zubrow, Ezra B.W.
 1990 Contemplating space: A commentary on Theory. In Interpreting Space: GIS and Archaeology.  Kathleen M.S. Allen, Stanton W. Green and Ezra B.W. Zubrow, editors, pp. 67-72. Taylor and Francis, London.

Uneven Landscapes, Uneven Histories


Seen in Ft. Worth

Swampscapes traveled to Ft. Worth, TX, last week for the 2017 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference.  It snowed.  In Texas.  Really.

Together with maroon scholar and University of Florida Phd student Liz Ibarrola, we presented a paper “Uneven Landscapes, Uneven Histories: Maroons in the American Historical Narrative.”  Liz studies the role of maroons in slowing US expansionism in Florida.  We’ve both noticed how the histories of maroons in Virginia and in Florida are given short shrift in common or popular tellings of the US American story.  So, we asked

“are there points in the highlights reel of US history many people carry in their minds that we can connect with in order to demonstrate the importance of marronage in the history of the United States? Can we as archaeologists mobilize these moments where the interconnectedness of marronage and other themes of US history come close to the surface in order to draw Maroon lives out of the margins of history and turn public attention to the contributions of hidden African and African-American people?”

Liz pointed out how the Spanish granted land rights to escaped slaves who helped defend their territory from the British.  Later, during the War of 1812, the British themselves recruited maroons to the fort at Prospect Bluff to defend against the US.  These Maroon settlement were “seen as a very real threat to the regional plantation system” and to Southern slavery.

For the Dismal, I highlighted George Washington’s Dismal Plantation whence two men called Tom and Lewis marooned in the Swamp for many years, and of two Revolutionary War incidents.  The Battle of Great Bridge and Dismal Swamp maroons even make a (very, very brief) appearance in the 2016 version of Roots.

By picking up these threads where maroon history intersects with well-known historical characters and events, we aim to “build deeper, more complex narratives” while also challenging the popular narratives.

“Maroons existed in the hidden and marginalized spaces of the colonial landscape and today, they remain marginalized in the figurative landscape of history. Maroon archaeology, then, has the capacity, and indeed the responsibility, to bring an unfamiliar story to the public.”

I’ll post the full paper over at

Frost and Fire

Frosty Roads

A frosty morning at Jericho Ditch

The frost and iced-over puddles this morning were just enough to make me think how amazing the canal roads would be for cross-country skiing.  Ski season (and the analysis and writing time that comes with it) has to wait for one more 2016 field session in the Dismal.  I’m grateful for the help of candidates in the ASV’s Certification program who are joining the fun this week.

Bundled up in many layers, warm hats, and waterproof waders, the four of us clambered over the Hurricane Matthew trees and through the not-too-deep water out to the site.  It’s rained a bit lately so the soil is rather damp- not enough to matter for digging but just enough to clog up the screen.

This week we are particularly interested in a handful of features partially exposed in previous sessions.  The soil in today’s new units was flecked with charcoal supporting the working hypothesis that the feature is a fire pit.  Further evidence came in the form a “massive”  (by Swamp standards) piece of melted dark green bottle glass.  Glass requires a lot of heat to melt and we now have 3 fragments similar in color, patina, and heat effects. Yay!


Massive, I tell you!   Green glass, once melted, with patina and a worked curved edge.   

What’s going on here?  Was the glass heated deliberately?  Were the fragments tossed in a fire?   Was there an uncontrolled fire?  So many questions!

Luckily, my ASV colleagues and I will be in the Swamp for the next few days looking for answers and more clues about the lives of the maroons and enslaved laborers who were on the island before us.