Hybrid Objects and Intercultural Assemblages in Colonial Louisiana
Handmade, Low-Fired Earthenwares in New Orleans (1718-1803)
Archaeologists working in the infamous French Quarter of New Orleans regularly encounter colonial deposits dating between 1718 and 1803. Generally speaking, they discover typical eighteenth-century ceramics: mass-produced European imports such as faience, creamware, and pearlware. However, they also find small quantities of coarse, low-fired, handmade sherds that contrast sharply with the rest of the assemblage. These sherds represent an unusually diverse range of types, demonstrating remarkable variation in paste, temper, surface treatment, and decoration. The majority of them resemble the late prehistoric and protohistoric ceramics of the region — those of the Lower Mississippi Valley and the northern Gulf coast — while a small but significant number are unique, one-of-a-kind vessels that defy local typologies and may represent imports or hybrid ceramic traditions. These sherds are important because they are likely associated with two groups of people — enslaved Africans and Native Americans — whose experiences were rarely recorded in the eighteenth century. Because they come from a diverse array of Euro-colonial contexts — including a private household, a plantation with a brick-making facility, a fort, a convent, and public outdoor spaces — rather than slave cabins or historic Native American villages, they can shed light on the establishment and transformation of complex intercultural relationships during the colonial era.
Similar assemblages in other colonial and imperial contexts are often interpreted as evidence for creolization. Unlike older models of culture change, such as "assimilation" and "acculturation," creolization refers to a creative process of cultural formation that often takes place under colonial conditions: one in which a distinctly new culture emerges from two or more antecedents. Materially, this process is associated with two different phenomena: the appearance of intercultural assemblages and hybrid objects. Intercultural assemblages occur when recognizable artifacts from different cultures are found in a single context; they typically refer to native goods on colonial sites, or European goods on native sites. Hybrid objects, on the other hand, combine elements — formal, technical, or stylistic — from two or more distinct cultures in a single artifact. Colonoware vessels, for example, are typically manufactured with Native American or African handbuilding techniques but are decorated in European styles or shaped into European forms. Intercultural assemblages are frequently interpreted as evidence for biological creolization via interracial marriage, while hybrid objects are thought to reflect cultural creolization occurring primarily through acculturation.
The datasets provided here represent part of a larger project designed to test the hypothesis that these two indices of creolization — intercultural assemblages and hybrid objects — do not necessarily reflect genetic mixing but a range of behaviors that are easily conflated with cultural and biological melding. Drawing heavily on underutilized ceramic data from recent excavations in New Orleans, this project integrates archaeological evidence, historic and ethnohistoric research, and ceramic characterization data into a fully contextualized analysis of intercultural relations during the colonial era.
This research was made possible by a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS-1309751), and associated data will be available here per NSF guidelines.
Three different forms of compositional analysis were utilized in this study. Neutron activation analysis (NAA) was performed under the supervision of Michael Glascock at the Archaeometry Laboratory of the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR). Ceramic petrography was performed by Ann Cordell at the Ceramic Technology Laboratory of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Finally, a relatively new application of laser ablated-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) was employed to source shell fragments in shell-tempered ceramics. This experimental form of analysis was undertaken by the author, with supervision by Laure Dussibieux, at the Field Museum of Natural History.
The samples utilized in these analyses were obtained primarily from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida in the United States. They include ceramics from more than 50 archaeological sites distributed throughout nearly 30 counties and parishes. A small number of samples were also obtained from the Republic of Benin and the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Africa, as there is some indication of West African influences among the imported vessels in the collection.
Site Names and Periods:
French Quarter, New Orleans, LA (18th century CE)
creolization, colonoware, New Orleans, Louisiana, Native Americans, Africans, slaves, NAA, LA-ICP-MS, petrography
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