Two Weeks on “Negro House Hill”: Historical Archaeology at Marshall’s Pen, Jamaica – Elizabeth Clay

September 16, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

With support from the Penn Museum, I spent two weeks this summer working with the Marshall’s Pen Archaeology Project, directed by Dr. James Delle of Shippensburg University. Marshall’s Pen is the site of an early 19th century coffee plantation in Mandeville, Jamaica, in Manchester Parish. Though today the site is used to raise cattle and as a haven for birds and bird watchers, the remains of colonial coffee production and the slave labor that made it possible are visible everywhere: from the concrete barbecues where coffee beans were dried, to the great house to Negro House Hill, the historic designation given to the former plantation slave quarters where we concentrated our efforts this summer.

Aerial photo of Jamaica - Google Earth 2015
Aerial photo showing the location of Marshall’s Pen – Google Earth 2015

This was my second trip with Dr. Delle, the first being in summer 2013 before I started at Penn as a doctoral student. This summer, I had the responsibility of helping lead the team, which initially consisted of three students from Shippensburg and an M.A. student from North Dakota State University. In our second week, we were joined by six students from the University of the West Indies at Mona with their program director.

Our work this summer investigated architectural variability on the hill. Previous field seasons revealed a number of variations in how houses for enslaved workers were constructed given that enslaved families were allowed to build houses to fit their own needs. Houses and other structures on the hill are identifiable by their stone foundations. This area of Jamaica sits on a limestone plateau and so historically, plenty of stone was available for building. Archival research conducted by Delle revealed that a stone mason lived and worked on the property and provided materials for housing construction.

This summer, I supervised the excavation of a house platform on the hill—lovingly referred to as “House Area 3 – House 2”—located near the house platform we excavated in summer 2013. The house foundation was cut into the hill and piled with foundation stones, with a cut stone exterior base. The platform was overgrown, so our first task was to remove the underbrush. The slope below this particular house had produced a large number of historic artifacts during a 1998 survey of the hill, so we were excited to see what we might find on the house platform itself.

Elizabeth excavating house platform. Photo Credit: Kristen Fellows
Elizabeth excavating house platform. Photo Credit: Kristen Fellows

Once the area was cleared, we began work by removing the top layer of soil, within which the excavators immediately started finding a large variety of nails. Over the hectic two week project, we uncovered an extensive house platform, possibly one of the largest excavated in Jamaica, measuring 12 x 24 feet. Very few artifacts were found within the house, but those we did uncover included two buttons, a silver earring, and a complete spur. What ceramic and glass artifacts we found were all outside of the house, which led us to believe that the house was probably well swept and packed up before the occupants abandoned the site following emancipation in 1834. Perhaps the most exciting find was architectural in nature: the remains of the floor of the house itself. The floor was made by sealing plaster over the foundation stones for a smooth interior surface. The walls were constructed in much the same way, but then whitewashed. Through careful excavation just below the ground surface, we were able to expose the remains of this floor, which in parts was quite complete! From the placement of whitewash wall tumble in association with the floor, we hypothesized that the house was likely divided into two rooms separated by an interior passageway.

House platform. Photo Credit: Zach Beier
House platform. Photo Credit: Zach Beier
House foundation. Photo Credit: Zach Beier
House foundation. Photo Credit: James Delle

This summer’s excavation overall was very successful. We learned more about architectural variability in enslaved housing at Marshall’s Pen. With further analysis—particularly of all the different nails uncovered at the site—we will be able to hypothesize further about how the house was constructed and how it likely appeared. This part of the project combined with survey work on the hill undertaken this summer by other members of the team will provide essential data to postulate about the use of space on the hill and how individual houses fit within the larger enslaved community of the plantation. For me personally, the experience gave me invaluable skills at managing archaeological excavation and student field teams.