Whither Labor?: A Search for the Laborers behind Southeastern Archaeology

Thomas Jefferson would have you believe he excavated a trench through a burial mound near his Virginia plantation sometime in the 1780s by himself. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia describes his excavation of an “Indian grave” on the Rivanna River in first-person terms. “I first dug superficially in several parts of it…” “I proceeded then to make a perpendicular cut…”

Jefferson’s work on the mound is largely considered to be a foundational event in American archaeology. His use of stratigraphic principles and excavation of trenches earned him the perhaps hyperbolic title of “Father of American Archaeology.” But, historians also agree that enslaved Africans were likely the ones who “dug superficially” and made the “perpendicular cut” in the mound.

Behind each of America’s early archaeologists stood a phalanx of assistance. This included laborers—the muscle and horsepower behind mound dissection—as well as guides, location scouts, willing landowners, and financial backers. Today, the front lines of field archaeology are populated by a group affectionately and self-derisively referred to as “shovelbums,” a group detailed in Marilyn Johnson’s great book, Lives in Ruins. But, archaeological labor in the past is poorly documented. Much of what we know about our foundational field technicians come from ephemeral evidence: paintings, century-old notebooks, and footnoted afterthoughts.


When I first came to Georgia, I started attending local archaeological conferences to learn what I could about regional history and archaeology. I was listening to one archaeologist discussing past efforts at a particular site when he mentioned—off-hand, it seemed—that during the 1930s, convict labor was used to remove several feet of alluvium from the site before more detailed work could commence. While I picked my jaw off the floor, the lecturer continued on with his story.

Now, I’m hooked. I’ve spoken to archaeologists from GA, AL, and MS, skimmed through some late 19th- and early 20th-century archaeological texts, and opened so many tabs on my browser it looks like the edge of a Cheez-It. Since that conference, I have expanded beyond convict labor to examine other forms of labor in archaeology’s early days. I hesitate to call these people proto-shovelbums, because their experiences are so much different. While the life of a modern field technician is difficult and uncertain, it was not nearly as bad as what some of our industrial predecessors put up with.

A scene from John J. Egan’s Panoramic of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c. 1850, depicting a group of African-Americans, likely enslaved, excavating a mound. Saint Louis Art Museum collection.

Eventually, I will pull together some kind of focus for a paper at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA, this fall, but I wanted to share some of what’s interesting me these days. For me, archaeological labor sits at the center of a Venn diagram, surrounded by items of regional and national historic context. Some of these relationships are pretty uncanny.

If you have experience in Southeastern archaeology, you have probably heard of Clarence Bloomfield (C.B.) Moore. Moore spent the 1890s through the 1910s coursing up and down the navigable rivers and coastlines of the Southeast tunneling into mounds, disturbing/recording hundreds of burials in the process. And, of course, he didn’t do it alone. In addition to hiring a local riverboat captain, a couple of location scouts, and a camp cook, Moore hired at least eight laborers, likely all African-American, to excavate trenches and test units in mounds in order to test a site’s research potential. According to one archaeologist, Moore found many of these men from a little town on the Florida panhandle called Sopchoppy and may have worked with some of them field season after field season.

Moore had a challenge. He had to find a Cinderella zone on the calendar that would provide rivers high enough to float his boat, yet avoid ruining cotton growing up and down the sides of the mounds he was interested in exploring. Most of his work occurred from December to April, between cotton harvest and planting. This served not only to avoid destroying crops, but also provided good visibility. It also assured him a crew of able-bodied, perhaps otherwise idle labor.

Test units excavated on one of Moore’s expeditions to Moundville in Alabama, reexcavated during the 1990s. From The Moundville Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore, edited by Vernon Knight, p. 5., University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL.

But here’s the catch. Doug Blackmon writes about Moore’s stomping ground in his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blackmon spends a couple of chapters in central and eastern Alabama, where the federal government, after years of prodding from activists and local Alabamans, sent Secret Service and DoJ officials to investigate very-real allegations of continued enslavement through abuse and perversion of the peonage, or prison labor, system. Moore was working in Alabama, along the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and other interior rivers at the same time the agricultural peonage system in Alabama was reaching his peak.  His work ended just before a rain of indictments came down starting in 1903, which paused, but did not stop, 20th-century enslavement in the Yellowhammer State.

I don’t know what kind of trouble Moore had retaining his crew, or what kind of trouble befell those men after Moore returned to Philadelphia in the spring. It is safe to assume, though, that if those men didn’t make it back to Sopchoppy, their continued freedom was tenuous at best. An unknown African-American in the interior small towns of Deep South could be a target, as we know from history.

I spoke with a couple of “old-timers” who worked with some of the mid-20th century’s foundational archaeologists in GA, AL, and MS, and one story stood out to me. A number of archaeologists recall working with prison work-release programs or convict labor as late as the 1970s. Others worked with Office of Economic Opportunity programs, a “War on Poverty” initiative established by LBJ in the 1960s and folded into Health and Human Services by Reagan in the 1980s.

One archaeologist pointed to the Denton site in Mississippi, a series of mounds from the Middle Archaic period (c. 6000–2000 BC). While working on that site in 1969, a convict work detail from Parchman Farm was brought in to shovel scrape the top of the mound. The prisoners sang “chain gang songs” while excavating stair steps in the mounds, up one side and down the other.

In 1969, Parchman Farm, officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, was going through an uncomfortable period. Just eight years before, the Farm was happy to host a group of Freedom Riders. Several of those activists were sent out on work details after their convictions, marking a smugly satisfied landmark in Mississippi penal history. But by 1972, long after the Freedom Riders left the Farm, a federal district court began hearing a civil rights case alleging constitutional abuses during the period of 1969–1971, overlapping the investigations at the Denton site. Apparently, there are good photographs of the work at the Denton site, which I have yet to track down.


Mark Williams at the University of Georgia has been a great resource so far for this project, putting me in touch with other archaeologists in the Southeast and sharing his memories with me. He mentioned to me, however, that I am probably doing this research about 15 years too late. Many of the archaeologists who have worked with convict labor are deceased, and so little has been officially recorded. Stanley South worked with convicts at the Ninety-Six site in South Carolina, a formative site in historic archaeology. He’s still alive, but that’s about it.

I’ll keep updating with little snippets here and there, especially as I start focusing my research on some region or time period. Once I start winnowing down my attention, I’m sure these little stories will start casting off in different directions like wood shavings.

These people are essential to our archaeological history, and their personal experiences show how the history of our discipline intersects with larger issues of regional and national history. If you’ve ever had to backfill a 1×2-meter unit by yourself, you know how invaluable teamwork is in the field. Now imagine if your unpaid or poorly paid labor brought to light some foundational discovery in archaeology, something that ended up in a book that is cited decades later as a touchstone. And your name never even made on it onto the outside of an artifact bag.


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