The region surrounding the Chesapeake Bay is rich in history. Originally settled by Native American tribes, the area is also home to the United States’ earliest English colonial settlements and the beginnings of American slavery. Since 2001, Julia King and a consortium of researchers have been advancing the archaeological study of the region through digital methods, collections-based research, and more traditional field excavations. Their work has made archaeological data more accessible to researchers and students and yielded new insights into colonial and pre-colonial history. It has also had an impact on Native American tribes who still live in the region.
As the first director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, King was charged with organizing and relocating archaeological collections from across the state to one central location. NEH grants helped preserve and electronically catalog records documenting more than 1-million objects from archaeological sites located throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, making them more broadly accessible to researchers. NEH funding also supported two comparative studies of English, Indigenous, and African culture in the Chesapeake. A consortium of researchers from around the region worked on these projects, contributing and digitizing their archaeological catalogs.
Through this work, archaeologists came to see nuances in interactions between Native Americans and English settlers, as evidenced through objects found in excavated sites. For instance, between 1660 and 1680, the colorful beads Native Americans traded changed from blue and white to black and red, indicating a growing antipathy for the settlers: among Native people, the color black was often closely associated with death. Beyond these insights, the funding resulted in two websites: ChesapeakeArchaeology.org and ColonialEncounters.org. These continue to be used by students and researchers as they explore the region’s history.
Now a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, King has continued her work in the region’s archeology and history through an NEH grant to excavate and analyze Indigenous sites along the lower Rappahannock River in Virginia. Throughout the project, King has worked closely with Rappahannock people who live in the area and whose ancestors settled the river valley. The excavations and GIS work associated with the project have proven crucial to helping the Rappahannock Tribe verify the accuracy of some of their oral traditions. More than subtle changes in historical interpretation and their echoes in museum exhibitions in classrooms, outcomes like these have been among the most significant in King’s career. All of this work, with its focus on Indigenous sites, has helped boost the efforts of Native tribes seeking recognition. As King states, “10 or 15 years ago, many people wouldn’t believe there were Native Americans here. They thought they were long gone, when in fact they are still here.”
This article first appeared on the National Humanties Alliance NEH for ALL webpage. This project has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.