A metal tag identifying an enslaved laborer found earlier this year on what’s now the College of Charleston campus is among a national archeology magazine’s top discoveries of the year.
During an excavation of 63 1/2 Coming St. in spring of 2021 by College of Charleston faculty members and students, archaeology professor Jim Newhard uncovered an 1853 slave tag.
These metal badges were issued in Charleston between the late 1700s and 1865 as a way of identifying enslaved people with a registration number and specific trade such as carpenter or fishermen. In fact, Charleston is the only Southern city known to have produced such documentation tags, making the artifact unique to the area.
The editors of Archaeology Magazine deemed the find worthy of the publication’s Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of 2021 published in the January/February issue due to its historical meaning and the context in which it was found.
“What is uncommon about this discovery is that this object was found in context, unlike many other examples now in the hands of private collectors that have no provenance,” Grant Gilmore, associate professor and Addlestone chair in historic preservation told the magazine. “An enslaved person living in the house may have discarded the tag in the hearth or someone on loan from across town may have lost it one day.”
Using property records from the excavation site behind the school library, could help reveal more information about the person to whom the tag was given.
The magazine and archaeology faculty members agree that the item is important to highlight as a way to reconcile with the area’s past and acknowledge the enslaved persons who suffered through the horrors of slavery.
“We felt the tag had to be included because it’s a reminder of an individual who may otherwise have been lost to time and to the dehumanizing system of enslavement,” said associate editor of Archaeology Magazine Marley Brown in a press release.
The discovery was an important lesson for students as a reminder of the city’s deeply entrenched history lurking, quite literally, just below the surface. It provided a more tangible understanding of the harsh, cruel reality of slavery and allowed students a lens through which to view the importance of archaeological work and its modern day implications said Newhard.
“We knew we were excavating a space inhabited and used by enslaved people. Intellectually, everything that we were collecting was possessed or used by those people,” he said. “The tag, however, puts an agent to that scene. This was an object worn as a mark of enslavement — even if that mark also enabled the ability to more freely move about the urban landscape and possibly gain a pittance of remuneration for their work. You felt the evil. It redoubled in my mind that not only was this artifact an expression of enslavement, so were the other objects we were recovering.”
“The tag put agency to the site – if not a name, an identity,” he said, “and I wanted them to see the importance and value of the work they were doing.”