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Book Chapter

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The Archaeology of Slavery: a Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion


This chapter explores the social identities of slaves through ancient material culture in order to articulate the relationship between ancient and modern slavery. This case study centers on columbarium tombs, collective burial monuments in the city of Rome used during the early imperial period (first century C.E.). Columbaria feature numerous funerary inscriptions, many of which unmistakably identify the deceased as having been a slave or freed slave. The transparency of this information is deceptive since these texts were subject to choice and social convention. However, the choice in wording reveals the voices of slaves and offers glimpses of their social identities. What emerges is that slaves and freedmen used collective burial to reinforce social communities, whereas their descendants tended to assimilate more seamlessly into mainstream society. The evidence illustrates some of the idiosyncrasies of ancient Mediterranean slavery, which leads me to caution against a literal transposition of concepts between studies of ancient and modern slavery. At the same time, there are fundamental similarities that expose rather timeless qualities of slavery. At the most basic level, this case study demonstrates the potential of material culture to overcome the relative silence surrounding slaves and manumitted slaves.

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Southern Illinois University Press

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Carbondale, IL

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