Before U.S. Highway 68 was widened, archaeologists from AMEC Earth and Environmental investigated the remains of an early nineteenth-century plantation owned by Mason Barkley. Both architectural and archaeological remains provided a glimpse into the lives of the people who once lived at and worked on this plantation.
The intact foundations of the main house, detached kitchen, slave house, and smoke/meat house revealed that the plantation’s buildings and layout changed over time. The main house was a four-room wooden structure built shortly after Barkley inherited the land from his father. As the size of Barkley’s plantation grew and he enslaved more blacks, he became a wealthy planter. He added on to his house, converting the kitchen into a slave house, and building a smoke house. Barkley eventually became so wealthy, he could afford to build a new house and outbuildings on another part of his plantation. He converted his old house into quarters for his growing enslaved population. His primary cash crop, hemp, was used to make twine and bags for baling cotton in the Deep South.
Archaeologists were able to link many of the recovered artifacts to the plantation’s enslaved people. Based on animal bone and plant remains, enslaved blacks primarily ate pork (likely provided by Barkley). They supplemented their diet with wild game, surplus grains grown on the plantation, and vegetables from their own gardens. Many of their possessions were provided or passed down to them by their owners. For instance, the fine dishes they used were a mis-matched set of the Barkley family’s own dishes.
Recovered fragments of musical instruments, including those of a harmonica, a mouth harp, and a guitar or banjo, show that some of the enslaved people played music – for their own entertainment and for that of their owners.
Archaeologists attributed several Barkley Plantation artifacts to the expression of religious beliefs and community identity by the plantation’s enslaved residents. For example, researchers found a coin with “X” marks or crosses, perforated metal disks or coins, and clay disks - common objects modified by the enslaved residents into symbolic items.
Investigators also discovered a hidden cache of objects – grouped below a fragment of a broken bowl – that they interpreted as an ancestor shrine. Only a few examples of ancestor shrines have been identified by archaeologists at plantation sites in the South. The example from Barkley Plantation is Kentucky's first.
Honoring ancestor spirits was a part of central and west African religious practices. Archaeologists think that Kentucky’s enslaved people of African descent incorporated these practices into their Christian beliefs and traditions. Shrines provided enslaved people a place to honor the spirits of their ancestors and a way to secure protection from evil or bad spirits. These shrines also helped enslaved people create for themselves a community and a culture in the face of the oppression of slavery.
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