The archaeological investigations at Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation have served to bring life once again to this silent monument. Modern excavation has uncovered the life that existed on the plantation, but was rarely meant to be seen. The work at Ashland-Belle Helene was unique in that it provided the opportunity for extensive investigation and interpretation of the areas in which the African-Americans of one plantation lived and worked. The great house was peripheral to this effort.
Instead, the focus of the study was the individuals who built the great house, the sugarhouse, and their own residences. It was the labor of these individuals in the fields and in the sugarhouse that provided the means to establish and to maintain the plantation. However, the living conditions and the material culture of the slaves cannot be fully comprehended without consideration of the planter. Although Ashland Plantation would not have been possible without the African-American slaves of the estate, Kenner was the ultimate authority. The vast majority of what the slaves possessed was theirs because it was in the planter's best interest to provide it to them.
The plan and organization of the land, along with the architecture of Ashland Plantation, show the planter's use of the landscape to convey his dominance, wealth, prestige, and control. It was no accident that Duncan Kenner selected a prominent architect to build a magnificent Greek Revival great house. Surrounded by formal gardens, the great house reflected Kenner's power. The quarters were placed on line with, but approximately 1,640 ft. back into, the fields from the great house, and relatively close to the sugarhouse. This separation was for a practical reason; it placed the slaves close to the areas where they worked. It also positioned the quarters out of direct view from the great house. Finally, it symbolized the social distance between planter and slave.
The planter's world was that of grace and luxury, while the slave's purpose was to provide the labor to produce the goods that enabled the planter's way of life. In this way, the slaves' closeness to the fields was not only practical but also symbolic of their role in the plantation community. Similarly, while the closeness of the sugarhouse to the quarters emphasized the slaves' position as laborers, the huge scale of the sugarhouse illustrated that the output of this factory belonged to the planter. The fact that the massive structures flanking the quarters were built and operated by the occupants of these modest cabins made the contrast all the more overwhelming.
The cabins themselves provide evidence of Kenner's paternalistic care of the slaves. They were relatively large, and they had glass windows. Providing adequate housing for the slaves was in Kenner's best interest. This enabled the work force to stay healthy and productive.
Excavations at Ashland-Belle Helene have provided a much fuller and more detailed view of a Louisiana sugar plantation than usually can be found in the documentary record. While there are many descriptions of how nineteenth-century sugarhouses operated, this was the first time that archaeologists in Louisiana had examined how equipment and machinery actually fit in a structure. This allowed an examination of the organization and flow of the work. Most of the sources on the daily lives of African-Americans both before and after Emancipation are incomplete and/or biased, so extensive excavations at two cabin sites yielded important tangible details about the activities and diet of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Finally, archaeological monitoring allowed all of the subsurface remains within the quarters and sugar production areas of the plantation to be mapped.
This was the first time in Louisiana that such a large area of a plantation was intensively examined archaeologically, and it permitted a look at changes that took place in these areas over time as structures were erected, used, and eventually abandoned. This research will help the visitor to a Louisiana great house envision the rest of the plantation. Much of Louisiana's history is preserved in the ground, and only through protection of archaeological sites and scholarly research can one gain a more complete understanding of the past.
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