The Plantation Next Door

I was first drawn to the book Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm, by Alexandra Chan, because the research in this book was used extensively by the museum that now interprets that New England farm, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In some ways, I found this book a more useful and interesting introduction to archaeology than From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book I picked up specifically to learn more about archaeology (and reviewed on the blog here). I’m partly biased because Slavery in the Age of Reason focused on the sub-field I’m most interested in, historical archeology (as in not prehistorical) that’s done in conjunction with historical or archival understanding of the same space. But, it’s really not comparable with From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book about archeological understanding in popular imagination, while Slavery in the Age of Reason describes the findings and implications of a specific archaeological investigation. The book originated out of Chan’s dissertation at Boston University, and it shows in the embedded tables of aggregated data. It’s a book that leaves its methods exposed, which I appreciate, although that sometimes slowed down the narrative.

The book's cover uses a photo of a 1905 
pagaent at the historic estate, a silhouette 
replacing the "servant" in blackface in the 
original photo.
Overall, I think the book would be quite comprehensible to someone who has never visited the site. Being very familiar with the Royall House and Slave Quarters in its current incarnation as a museum -- the lawn that once made up part of the gardens, the slave quarters building which had been renovated and finished before it became a key part of the site’s interpretation, and the house’s first two stories, furnished to evoke the Royalls’ lives -- I found the book’s descriptions of the site easy to navigate. I worked on a visitor data project for the museum a few years ago; I’ve been on more than a dozen tours of the house, so I’m not exactly the typical reader, but I was readily able to visualize the spaces Chan described, remembering scenes I hadn’t thought about at all recently. The book doesn’t rely heavily on having a mental map of the estate, and only a few chapters rely on that at all. I definitely recommend a visit to the Royall House and Slave quarters if you’re in the Boston area, but you shouldn’t avoid the book if you haven’t been. However, I do think my knowledge of the site helped me feel less lost while reading the sections that were heavy on archeology terms or methods. I suspect that readers without familiarity with either the site or archeology would find the book denser.

The book provides insight into a situation that was in some ways, remarkable -- the Royall family was extraordinarily wealthy and held more people in slavery than anyone else in Massachusetts at the time. In other ways, it was very commonplace -- slavery was a regular part of New England society at the time, and while the practice wasn’t universally unquestioned, it wasn’t regarded a shameful secret or a mark of bad character to hold people in slavery. Chan returns to the contradiction pointed out in the title several times. This was supposed to be the Enlightenment, a time when justice and rationality were en vogue, and yet people were enslaved. The book does not resolve this tension (how could it?) but does some work to reveal the myth of benign Northern slavery, such as by calculating how often the Royalls separated enslaved people from their communities and families through sale or trade. Moreover, it shows us glimpses of the real and human lives that the people enslaved on the site lived, from their clay pipes to their salvaged and repaired plates.