October 27, 2005
CW's Historic Trades re-create lives of 18th-century slaves one piece at a time
Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades are re-creating aspects of the lives of slaves from the African Burial Ground one piece at a time. In 1991, during archaeological investigations conducted prior to the construction of a new federal building in New York, archaeologists uncovered a portion of the burial ground. It is estimated that 20,000 enslaved men, women and children were buried there.
The U.S. General Services Administration approached master silversmith George Cloyed about reproducing items found at the site, including handmade and cast cufflinks and cuffbuttons, bone, brass, pewter and fabric-covered buttons, rings with glass stones, earrings and straight pins.
“This project presented us with the opportunity to not only study and reproduce a rare group of 18th-century objects, but also to add to our storehouse of information about the possessions of 18th-century slaves,” said Jay Gaynor, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of Historic Trades.
The first step was to work with Colonial Williamsburg’s Collections and Museums Division to learn more about the objects themselves and create molds and replicas to enable duplication of the objects. David Blanchfield, conservator of objects and metals, Chris Swan, furniture conservator, and Emily Williams, conservator of archaeological materials, sent buttons, cuffbuttons and rings to an independent analytic lab in Maryland to help determine the metal composition of the objects and their original appearance.
Following analysis, the original objects were molded using a highly accurate silicone rubber compound. Interestingly, the exacting molding process includes the playful construction of Lego building block boxes in order to contain the liquid rubber. After the two-part molds were poured and cured, prototype replicas could be cast in polyurethane resin. The master silversmith used these plastic replicas to re-create the originals.
Additional Historic Trades shops lent their skills to the project. The Gunsmith Shop crafted the bone buttons. The Geddy Foundry cast brass and pewter buttons and cufflinks. Colonial Williamsburg’s tailor covered buttons with fabric. The Silversmith Shop and the Gunsmith Shop worked with the Blacksmith Shop on creating tinned brass straight pins. “We had to figure out how to make each of these things,” Cloyed said.
At least three of each item has been made and many of the reproduction items have been delivered. The National Park Service will display these objects in an interpretive center near the New York burial site. “The original objects already have been reburied,” Cloyed said.
The Foundation’s Silversmith Shop will talk about the reproduction items during interpretation to guests. Cloyed refers to the project as a “myth buster.” “Many people believed that slavery in the 18th century only existed in the south,” he said. “We have the opportunity to tell them that not only were there slaves in New York but one-fifth of the population was enslaved.”
The National Park Service administers 385 areas contained in the National Park System. There are three principal categories of parks: natural areas, historical areas and recreational areas. The parks in each category employ a special approach to the management, interpretation of their unique features, as well as the enjoyment of the visitors.