The Real Next Step: Dissertation Proposal

Posted by on Jan 4, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | No Comments

As fun as it is to think that I will have all the time in the world to sit around and read great books, passing comprehensive exams is really just the beginning of the important part of my time in graduate school. The fun/hard part starts now. Writing the dissertation. And the first part of that process is writing a dissertation research proposal.

My research is going to use data excavated by Historic St. Mary’s City in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. St. Mary’s City is the site of the first capital of Maryland, which was settled by British catholics in 1634. It remained the capital, and has been historically examined as the birthplace of religious toleration. When the capital moved to Annapolis after the Protestant Revolution in the 1680s, St. Mary’s was abandoned, and eventually fell into ruins.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the space went through multiple transitions as a slave plantation. There has been a good deal of survey work that has identified these transitions, and historical work that links these transitions to changes in ownership through sale, marriage, and inheritance. My dissertation research will look at one of the final transitions: the shift from before to after the Civil War.

During this period, the plantation was owned by Dr. John Mackall Brome, who had a very specific idea as to how he wanted to organize his plantation and surrounding space. His quarters appear to be organized in a straight line, along a road leading from behind his manor home to the agricultural center. He organized his slaves in family sized single and duplex quarters, and controlled the entrypoints to his community by constructing a wharf. Dr. Brome was very much in control of the landscape.

After the Civil War, instead of renegotiating new terms for the former slaves who lived on his property, he began to work out additional deals to industrialize the region. Unfortunately, none of this worked out. The power he had lost during the Civil War was more than his control of labor: he had lost significant amounts of regional power, as well.

Historic St. Mary’s City has excavated two of the buildings that once housed some of Dr. Brome’s laborers. One of these structures, a duplex quarter, was occupied from 1840 until 1950, and still stands, although in a different location. The other building, which was next to the duplex, was a single quarter and stood until the 1930s, although it was probably uninhabited soon after emancipation. Both quarters are in the photograph above.

My dissertation research will be examining the material record of these two structures. In particular, I will be looking at how the inhabitants of these buildings adapted to their newfound freedom. Some evidence of this is already apparent: after emancipation, the walls that separated the duplex were knocked down. The African Americans were already beginning to exercise their newfound power within a household that had now become their own, not Dr. Brome’s.

I am excited about this research. I am also excited to share what I can with all of you. I am hoping that I will be able to share some of the exciting pieces of history and culture that I uncover, run ideas past you as I work them out, and hopefully develop a meaningful dialogue with you. I am hopeful that there will be a number of different communities following along: certainly there will be archaeologists and non-archaeologists. My hope is that this will be a space where both groups will feel comfortable asking questions, challenging my work, and engaging in good conversation about archaeology. If anything I write about is unclear, please, ask. Nobody learns if you don’t.

Follow my running commentary via twitter @brockter through the topic #TerrysDis!

photo from 1923 Swepson Earle, in The Chesapeake Bay Country.