Italy, Greece and Egypt may be the fan favourites when it comes to ancient ruins and long-buried sites of interest, but there are many notable historical sites in the US too. Archaeology Travel’s Thomas Dowson walks us through some of the most interesting of these locations.
In 1784, while treasure seekers were rifling through the solidified ash at Pompeii in Italy, Thomas Jefferson was directing a more systematic excavation in the US state of Virginia. At an earthen mound known locally as ‘the Indian grave’ Jefferson was using excavation techniques that he himself devised to excavate the mound. Techniques that would over time be developed and become standard procedures in scientific field archaeology. This is the same Thomas Jefferson who was the third president of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
The reason why Jefferson, or rather his slaves, were excavating this mound is a long story. But a very interesting one, the details of which can be found in a thoroughly readable book by Jason Colavito, The Mound Builder Myth, published in 2020. What is important, however, is that Jefferson and the intellectual circles which he moved in (he was also president of the American Philosophical Society) did not question that the earthen mound was a Native American burial site.
That mound is one of many thousands of mounds throughout the US. Sadly a lot of these have long since been destroyed. Jefferson was right. There is absolutely no doubt that these mounds belong to Native Americans, their being on the land, their traditions and histories. Despite the work of Jefferson and others after him, as well as what ethnographers reported from Native Americans, some still chose to interpret these mounds as the work of a lost race of white Americans.
This is not unlike how some perceive the origins of the ancient pyramids in Egypt. There are influential writers and their followers who believe that those iconic monuments were created by aliens with superpowers of construction. These people are more comfortable with bizarre claims of aliens than they are accepting that Egyptians living a few thousand years ago could build the extraordinary pyramids we see today.
I find it somewhat ironic that one of the first instances of a ‘scientific archaeology’ at a Native American sacred site was carried out by slaves. Particularly as the ‘evidence’ they uncovered would go on to be rejected just as the civil rights of those slaves and their descendants were and would continue to be denied; on to the 20th and on even into the 21st century. Long after the American Civil War ended and Slavery was abolished.
Such are the poignant and powerful themes of US history that crop up again and again. The themes that are of profound interest for any would-be historical traveller: the heritage of the Native Americans, Slavery, the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.
Native American heritage in the US
Archaeologists have located the mound dug by Jefferson’s Slaves. And although there is nothing left to see, there are many other mounds and archaeological sites in the US where we can learn about the history and traditions of Native Americans.
The term ‘mound’ is applied to a wide variety of historic sites in the eastern US, ranging in date from 5,500 years ago to the 16th century. The mound Jefferson was interested in, a typical burial mound, was round with a diameter of about 12m and standing to about three or four metres high. Some mounds were formed into the shape of an animal or a human or abstract symbol.
These are known as effigy mounds and were used for burial and other ceremonial purposes. One of the most well-known being Serpent Mound, just over 400m long and 3m high. And there are many others that can be visited in the Great Lakes area of the US.
And then there are the platform mounds, which are huge in comparison to the others just described. At archaeological sites in the US such as Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois or Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site in Georgia, the mounds were placed at the heart of settlements.
Monks Mound, the largest platform at Cahokia, measures 30 m high, 290 m long, 255 m wide and covers an area of 5.6 ha. Not all of the platform mounds were this big, but they were substantial enough for structures to be erected on top. Buildings that are thought to have been houses for the elite and ceremonial structures.
These various mounds are, however, the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to exploring historic Native American sites in the US. In the American southwest, for example, a number of historic cliff dwelling sites are accessible to the public. Here stone and mortar habitational and ceremonial buildings, some as much as three or four stories high, were built into the sides of protected rock shelters and alcoves. Montezuma’s Castle, which was neither a castle nor where the Aztec leader Montezuma lived, and Mesa Verde are just two of the more spectacular archaeological sites you can visit in Arizona and Colorado respectively.
Plantations and slavery in the US
The burial mound that Jefferson had dug was on land he inherited from his father. He designed and created a substantial plantation, named Monticello, on which he used the labour of enslaved Africans to grow tobacco on a substantial scale. While there is no direct mention that these same slaves were used to excavate the burial mound, it is highly likely they did.
Today Monticello, along with the University of Virginia – also designed by Jefferson – is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting thousands of visitors each year. People come not only to learn about Thomas Jefferson and his achievements and influence, but also about his role in slavery. Jefferson may very well have called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”, but he continued to hold human beings as property his entire adult life.
The site now is as much about the life of Thomas Jefferson as it is about the lives of some 600 slaves that lived and laboured on the plantation. Particular attention is given to the life of Sally Hemings at Monticello. Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemmings – an enslaved woman who worked on the plantation. A matter that was talked about even during his first presidency but only accepted as recently as 2000.
Monticello, in the state of Virginia, is not the only plantation to offer a more fuller account of its history to its visitors. Another, opened to the public not that long ago in 2014, is the Whitney Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Established in 1752 by Ambroise Haydel, a German immigrant, the plantation had over 350 slaves.
What is unique about the Whitney Plantation is that many of the outbuildings have survived. Visiting other plantations, and there are a few – Rosedown and Oak Alley to name another two – you will not see the early outbuildings as these have just not been preserved. At Whitney, besides the big house, you can see an original kitchen building, a saddle storage shed, a privy, a watering trough for mules, an overseer’s house, a mule barn and feed storage building, a late 19th century plantation store, a pigeonnier, and the last surviving example of a true French Creole barn. And, there are a number of memorials to the slaves of Whitney Plantation and Louisiana.
Battlefields of the Civil War in the US
Although the cause of the American Civil War – in America it is just the ‘Civil War’ – is still debated by historians, most now accept that slavery was the primary cause. Very briefly, the war started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. It was fought between the southern states that had broken away from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, and the northern states that remained loyal to the Union.
The southern states insisted that the enslavement of Africans should be allowed to continue. After four years of bloody conflict the United States defeated the Confederate States and Slavery was abolished throughout the union.
Visiting Civil War battlefields and associated historic sites and museums is a popular pastime in the US. During the four years, soldiers were involved in over 10,000 military engagements, and of those only 50 are counted as major battles. Historic conservation groups work to preserve these battlefields as only about 162 have any sort of protection.
Many of these battlefield and associated sites are managed by the US National Park Service, such as the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park. This is where the Confederates fired the first shots at 4:30 am on April 12, 1861, an event that marked the start of the Civil War. Shiloh National Military Park is a good example of how some historic sites represent more than one period of the past. Not only can visitors explore the Civil War battlefield, where there were an estimated 23,000 casualties from what was the largest battle in the Mississippi Valley, but the park also contains the Shiloh Indian Mounds, six rectangular mounds with flat tops that probably had elite residential and/or ceremonial structures on top.
But it is at the Stones River battlefield site in Tennessee where visitors can see the close links between slavery and the Civil War. African slaves fought on both sides of the conflict. Free and run-away slaves understandably fought alongside the Federation, but slaves were also deployed on Confederate lines as servants and manual labourers.
Looking beyond the remains of the battlefield itself, Stones River tells a very moving story. Not long after the war ended, a Union regiment returned to the battlefield. These men had not fought in the battle at Stones River. Rather they were Black men who had been freed from slavery, fought on the side of the Union and had come to rebury the dead. There are over 6,000 Union soldiers buried in the national cemetery at Stones River. These former slaves went on to settle in the area and rebuild their lives in a community named Cemetery.
The Civil Rights Movement in the US
Despite the loss of around 620,000 soldiers and the abolition of Slavery in all states, the Civil War did not bring an end to the abuse of civil liberties suffered by African people in the US. Not for another hundred years did the African American civil rights movement start making significant legislative gains against institutionalised racism.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, former male slaves were able to vote and even hold political office. But it was under the so-called Jim Crow laws that African Americans continued to be denied civil rights. The struggle by African Americans to be afforded civil rights, given the vote and allowed equal access to housing is well documented.
Today there are many museums and protected historic and archaeological sites in the US that commemorate this fight. On suggestions for which museums to visit that tell African American stories, I can’t improve on Liam McGarry’s excellent list of the Best Black History Museums in the USA.
Besides the sites and museums, tour guides provide engaging itineraries for small group and private tours. Consider, for example, this three-hour tour of Atlanta that retraces the origins of the civil rights movement. You will get to visit the site of the Battle of Atlanta, a campaign that was a significant win for the Union; the Oakland Cemetery, one of the oldest pieces of land in Atlanta in which many important people were buried; as well as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, that encompasses the Civil Rights leader’s birthplace, church, and final resting place.
Has Thomas Dowson’s take on historical sites in the US piqued your interest in archaeology more generally? This interview with Dowson on historical tourism will be right up your alley.
Thomas Dowson trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). His research focused on prehistoric arts of southern Africa and western Europe. In the mid ’90s he moved to the UK where he set up the world’s first postgraduate degree programme on rock art. Other research activities included the contemporary significance of the past, which continue to influence his work on Archaeology Travel. Thomas travels widely and deeply to find more perspectives to the way sites and museums are experienced.