James Newhard works to discover Charleston’s past and clues to its future
About Dr. James Newhard - PhD in classical and pre-classical archaeology, University of Cincinnati; Has taught at College of Charleston since 2003; Lives in North Charleston
Last spring, pre-construction evacuations unearthed an 1853 slave tag on the College of Charleston’s campus. The diamond-shaped metal tag shows a slaveowner had registered with the city to permit the enslaved person to work for someone else. The dig was co-directed by Dr. James Newhard, director of the college’s Center for Historical Landscapes, and the find was named one of the top 10 global discoveries of the year by Archaeology magazine.
Newhard specializes in landscape archaeology, the study of how human societies are impacted by environmental conditions and vice versa. In 2017, he opened the Center for Historical Landscapes to help foster discussions related to environmental management, economic development, responses to dramatic climatic fluctuations, and cultural heritage. Newhard talked to us about the significance of the tag and the center’s other work.
Charleston is the only city known to have issued tags that enslaved people were required to wear to work for someone other than their enslavers.
CM: What’s the significance of the slave tag found on campus?
JN: I can think of few things that are a more powerful physical sign of enslavement than these tags; the tag is part of the historical record of urban Charleston. We’re working on fleshing out the people who lived and worked in the structure and reframing the broader story to more fully account for the enslaved. We want to help connect historical records with the information that is so often not in those records. For example, the US Census might show 19 enslaved people living on a property and count them by age and gender, but there may be little else about the actual people who bled into this landscape. The archaeological record can lend a voice to that part of our history.
CM: How can studying the past impact Charleston’s future?
JN: The number of high tides in Charleston is increasing, and we’re trying to figure out how to structure our communities to exist in a way that works with or mitigates environmental shifts. The Lowcountry landscape is hugely impacted by people and understanding the environmental changes inherently requires understanding those cultural modifications.
CM: What’s the center working on this year?
JN: Locally, we’re documenting the artifacts found at 63½ Coming Street. We’re also collaborating in a study of some private property in the ACE Basin, providing a baseline of information in terms of the extent of its cultural resources so the owners can be good stewards of those resources without inhibiting the property’s broader use. One of the more exciting things we’re working on is re-centering the narrative to include the voices of descendant communities.
Watch the “If These Walls Could Talk” documentary about the contributions enslaved Africans made to the architectural beauty of the College of Charleston.