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The GW Hatchet


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The GW Hatchet

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Anthropology researcher searches for slave-era shipwreck

Anthropology professor Stephen Lubkemann thinks his planned trek into the sea will soon help shape the understanding of one of the ugliest aspects of human history: the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Lubkemann has spent two years pinpointing the site of a shipwreck near Cape Town, South Africa that killed more than 200 slaves being transported between East Africa and the Americas during the 1790s. If he reaches the sunken ship, he says the findings will add the first archaeological evidence to the 18th-Century slave trade.

The search of the South Atlantic Ocean is one of five research initiatives piloted by GW professors that now have the support of an 18-month-old joint fund between the University and the Smithsonian Institution. The time since the partnership’s establishment was spent vetting project ideas and selections were announced Jan. 12.

Alongside Smithsonian curator Paul Gardullo, Lubkemann will lead a team of nine researchers from the U.S. and South Africa to the ocean floor in hopes that getting an up-close view of the shipwreck will reveal historical details.

“This is an area where archaeology could possibly make some contributions that would be unique,” Lubkemann said.

He added that although other teams of archaeologists have already studied shipwrecks from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this effort would be the first to analyze a ship that was carrying slaves when it sunk. Examining the ship’s size and technology will reveal goals and priorities for the slave traders – like concern about a British blockade or the importance of speedy transport, Lubkemann said.

A panel of four researchers from GW and four from the Smithsonian chose the five research projects over the last several months. The judges whittled 13 proposed projects down to five, each of which includes researchers from both organizations, University spokeswoman Angela Olson said.

Each project received $40,000 – an even split of the $200,000 contributed jointly by the University and the Smithsonian Institution.

The other four projects will tackle subjects spanning from the effects of primate breast milk on infant growth to the political and cultural ecologies of cell phones.

The Smithsonian Institution hopes the findings of the shipwreck study will contribute to its National Museum of African American History and Culture. The other projects will also work with Smithsonian museums and research centers.

“In the long term, some of our partners, such as the Smithsonian, are very interested in how the material we might locate can be used in their education programs to bring this kind of history to life for people who are not going to be diving at these sites like we are.” Lubkemann said.

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