Excavation of sites such as Timbuctoo, N.J., is helping to rewrite African American history

Archaeologists from Temple University are excavating a site in New Jersey they say was a village of free black people almost 200 years ago.
By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

TIMBUCTOO, N.J. -- In Timbuctoo lies a hill. Underneath that hill lies a house, or what archaeologists think might have been a house once upon a time. The silver clasp of a woman's handbag, piles of Mason jars, chips of dinner plates and an empty jar of Dixie Peach Pomade lie among the bricks that have broken away from the foundation.

These are crushed fragments of a past life when free black people lived in this New Jersey community almost 200 years ago -- free even then, 45 years before Emancipation. "Most of the history of this country is in that house," says David Orr, a classical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Temple University. Orr is standing at the site down a gray road in Timbuctoo. A hot wind is blowing.

Orr said that the buried community has the potential to be a very important find in African American history. "Timbuctoo is great in a larger context because it lasted, some of it, into the 20th century," he said. "It also has a very large descendant community, so ethnographically it is important."

Timbuctoo was founded by freed blacks and escaped slaves in the 1820s. It was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name. The neighborhood still exists in the township of Westampton, N.J., about a 45-minute drive northeast of Philadelphia, an enclave of many acres, so tiny and tucked away that when you ask someone at the store two miles away, he tells you he has no idea where it is.

Timbuctoo has always been a secret kind of a place. Had to be, because it was part of the Underground Railroad. There are newer houses here now where some descendants of original settlers still live. But much of the physical history of Timbuctoo is buried underground. Based on a geophysical survey, archaeologists believe that foundations of a whole village of perhaps 18 houses and a church dating back to the 1820s lies beneath layers of dirt.

In June, those archaeologists from Temple University in Philadelphia began unraveling Timbuctoo's secrets, excavating the hill next to a Civil War cemetery where African American troops are buried. The discoveries are fragile and ordinary artifacts of everyday life -- jars for medicines and cosmetics, pieces of shoes, dinner plates -- but to the people unearthing them, they are invaluable.

'Story of the oppressed'

Archaeological excavation of African American communities such as Timbuctoo is booming across the country, spurred by an increasing number of prominent black academics and politicians and a proliferation of museums dedicated to African American history, whose curators are eager to display the artifacts. (Archaeologists had known about the hill in Timbuctoo for years, but it wasn't until a recently appointed black mayor of the township of Westampton, Sidney Camp, pursued a geophysical survey did the excavation begin.)

"It is very important that these excavations take place," said Rex Ellis, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the Mall in 2015. "The tradition has been to overlook these things in the past. There have not been archaeologists specifically searching for these kinds of treasures. For us, this activity will contribute appreciably to our understanding of African Americans as builders and contributors to this nation."

Archaeologists involved in the excavations say they are helping to rewrite an incomplete history -- adding evidence of resistance, not just physical oppression; evidence of integration, not just segregation. They are, they say, unearthing evidence not only of lives endured in slavery, but also of whole communities of escaped slaves hiding in small, self-sufficient communities.

"Historical records are biased and written from a certain perspective. People we are working with haven't had control over the narrative of the past," said Paul Shackel, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. "People wrote about them, but wrote from their perspective. If you read the diary of what people thought of African Americans, it is atrocious. It's racist. . . . We are . . . helping to provide the story of the oppressed and helping to make it public."

Aside from researching their own questions, some of the archaeologists are asking descendents and communities what they want to know. This practice spread after the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation, which required archaeologists to repatriate human burial and funerary objects, prompting consultation with descendents, Shackel said. A Temple student working with Orr is conducting interviews with Timbuctoo descendents to help guide the dig.

Christopher Fennell, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, says communities connected to old black towns are saying: " 'Don't tell us about brutality in the past. Tell us about how African Americans overcame racism.' There is much more focus on free African Americans like Timbuctoo." Researchers are focusing, for example, on how blacks participated in the Underground Railroad. "The untold story," Fennell says, "is that it was really run by free and enslaved African Americans helping slaves to escape."

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