Between the 16th and 19th centuries it is estimated that 12 million people were captured as slaves or sold into slavery in a trade that took them from their homes in Africa to plantations in the Americas. Despite having been much studied and debated, the slave trade continues to provoke intense academic and public interest because there is still so much we do not know about slavery. While historical documentation can tell us about the workings of the slave trade and the slave owners, we know very little about the everyday experience of slaves from their own perspective. What was it like to be enslaved? How did the natural environment, landscape, living conditions and diet that slaves experienced affect their health, wellbeing and emotional lives?
This project aimed to bring together archaeological scientists, writers and literary scholars to explore what it was like to be enslaved. Both scientists and humanities scholars have attempted to understand this experience: archaeologists examine the physical human skeletal remains of the enslaved, uncovering details about the birth place, health, well-being and traumatic injuries sustained by the slaves. In contrast, writers combine existing historical information with their own imaginative impulses to represent individual experiences of slavery. While archaeologists’ and writers’ aims are similar, their methods are different. We aimed to begin a dialogue between these groups, to explore how literary and archaeological narratives of slave lives might influence and inform one another to improve our understanding of what is was like to be a enslaved.