Learn more about the important role that archaeology plays at Rock Hall. See how archaeological evidence has shaped our knowledge of Long Island's history.
Archaeological research has made major contributions in understanding the evolution of Josiah Martin's estate, the lives of the Hewlett family and continued research on the enslaved Africans at Rock Hall. Visit the cellar to view the permanent Archaeology exhibit.
Rock Hall Museum’s unique archaeological exhibit room proudly displays the results of over a decade of research by local archaeologists, Annette Silver, PhD, Jo-Ann McLean, MA, TAS Archaeological Services, Christopher Matthews, PhD, and consultant Ross T. Rava. Informative panels explain the various archaeological excavations conducted in the museum’s western yard, and shows that what began as a search for the site of a kitchen outbuilding has led to the fascinating discovery of evidence of captive Africans at Rock Hall. The ongoing analysis of the many artifacts recovered so far, such as fragments of plates, cups, jars, bottles, buttons, clay smoking pipes, butchered animal bones, sea shells, nails, bricks, and window glass, has aided the museum’s understanding and presentation of the lives of Rock Hall’s various occupants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Recently, Hofstra University’s Center for Public Archaeology participated in an important research project at Rock Hall. Under the guidance of Christopher N. Matthews PhD (Hofstra University) and Ross T. Rava (independent researcher and archaeological consultant), anthropology students confirmed the accuracy of an 1836 historical property survey. This successful project has provided the museum with important guidance on protecting and preserving potential sites for future archaeological investigations.
For more information view the two articles below about Rock Hall and the archaeological findings.
Revisiting Rock Hall:
New Insights and Theories
Rock Hall Manor in Lawrence, New York has been the site of archaeological excavations since 1995 and has encouraged archaeologists and historians alike to uncover the unique story behind its past. Recent excavations in 2009, 2010, and 2011 by the Hofstra Center for Public Archaeology (CfPA) have brought to light new clues about Rock Hall, forcing scholars to re-evaluate their thoughts regarding the history of the manor and slavery on Long Island.
Rock Hall was built in 1767 by Josiah Martin, the son of a wealthy plantation owner in Antigua. Surveys in 1817 and 1836 show the main manor house in addition to smaller outbuildings on the property. Understanding the purposes of these outbuildings and confirming the veracity of the surveys has been the main priority of research and excavations. Excavations in 1995, 2003, 2005, and 2006 all sought to pinpoint the exact locations of the outbuildings and search for evidence of a cooking fireplace and kitchen, which were absent from the manor house. It was found that slave quarters, and likely the kitchen, were present in one larger outbuilding in the West Yard of Rock Hall.
In 2010 everything changed. Until this point, it was assumed that the 1817 (rather than 1836) survey was accurate. The 1836 survey was dismissed because it showed an outbuilding that was about one-third the size of the main house; an elite plantation manor built in the Georgian style would not possess a building that would detract attention from the manor itself. In 2010, archaeologist Ross Rava and the CfPA set out to use archaeology to determine the accuracy of the surveys. Identification of features and foundations of illustrated outbuildings that almost perfectly matched those depicted in the 1836 survey has led to the conclusion that this survey, rather than the one from 1817, is correct.
This discovery has led to some new ideas about the site. It is now theorized that the largest outbuilding probably predated Josiah Martin’s building of Rock Hall and likely served as a the kitchen for the manor as well as housing for at least some of Martin’s 17 enslaved African laborers. Researchers have also revisited collections from previous excavations in light of this new information. The results could not be more exciting.
A fireplace base found in the largest outbuilding was constructed using a “tabby” method. This style of construction, which uses ash and crushed shell, is common in the Caribbean. Artifact caches previously identified as likely refuse pits also tell a much more interesting story. A cache found outside the western cellar door contained straight pins, buckshot, and a small ceramic shard depicting a bird in flight, among other artifacts. These items are thought to have held religious and symbolic significance for captive Africans. The fact that the cache was found outside an entrance is of particular interest because caches were often placed to protect the house from malignant spirits that used openings like doorways, windows and chimneys to enter homes.
Additionally, most belief systems often employ “cosmograms,” or key symbols that illustrate the order of the cosmos in simple forms. A common West African cosmogram known in both African and African diaspora context depicts the cycle of life, and the cardinal points represent the phases of birth, death and the afterlife. The tabby fireplace was located in the center of the northern wall and the cache was found at the center of the east wall of the outbuilding. Together these findings may represent two points of a West African cosmogram.
These types of connections have only recently been made aware of, as archaeologists revisit previous data to understand it in this new context. It is possible that here at Rock Hall, the interpretation of a strict plantation style and social environment will be dismissed in favor of more dynamic slave-owner interactions that included a higher degree of mutual interaction and aspects indicative of African cultural retentions and even independence. The history of Rock Hall is changing as we understand and interpret the lives of those who lived during its time.
Article originally published by the Center for Public Archaeology, Summer 2012 Newsletter.