The New Gig: EUROTAST

Two of the research fellows in the EUROTAST project, looking at samples in the lab at the University of Bristol.

Last December I had the immense good fortune to join the Archaeology Department at the University of York as a EUROTAST Marie Curie Research Postdoctoral Fellow. I’ve been finding my legs in my new job for the last few months, getting the required equipment, and generally settling in. In practical terms, the position is familiar territory for me—digital media and public outreach—but the subject matter is a radical shift: new scientific methods of investigating the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While my first excavation investigated the home of formerly enslaved Dallas residents, with Dr. Maria Franklin at the University of Texas, and I have worked on historically disadvantaged and enslaved populations since that time, it was not my major research focus. Also, I understood (to a certain extent) the developments in archaeometry of the last decade, but the specifics were a gloss: I put the sample in a bag and sent it to a specialist who dealt with it.

It has been incredibly eye-opening both in terms of the vast wealth of information that DNA and isotopic analyses has to offer in archaeological research and the emotional toll of studying what can only be described as one of the most tragic chapters in history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

(After I finished that last sentence, I sat and looked at it for ten minutes. The TAST takes all the words away.)

So. While my postdoc is incredibly amazing—I heard that it was called the “unicorns and rainbows job”—there is…this. How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? There’s also contending with the rather large new body of literature. I find this a benefit, as it provides an outside perspective that is valuable in outreach in demonstrating the interest and vitality of a subject that feels tedious to a long-term expert in the subject. Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.

Finally, it is fantastic being at the University of York. There’s great momentum in the Archaeology department and beyond, with the Centre for Digital Heritage, the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, and the presence of top researchers who are willing to try new things. And we do have some delights in store.

The Curious Case of Mr. Hans Jonatan: Iceland, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Genetics in Archaeology

"Islanda", a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Islanda”, a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recent research into genetics and the complicated history of the Transatlantic slave trade has revealed an unlikely but important ancestor of nearly 500 Icelandic people: Hans Jonatan. EUROTAST, a Marie Curie-funded research initiative from a consortium of international universities into “The History, Archaeology and New Genetics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” has shed light onto the mass forced migrations of people from Africa to the colonies in the west as a whole, but also expressed as the fascinating experiences of a formerly enslaved man.

Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on a sugar plantation in St. Croix, a Danish colony in the Caribbean, transferred to Copenhagen, sentenced to go back to St. Croix after the abolition of slavery in Denmark, then escaped to Iceland, where he raised a family. His illegal retention in Copenhagen by his former Mistress, Henriette Catharine Schimmelmann, was at the center of an historic court case that tested the legality of new abolition legislation—did Jonatan’s stay in Denmark set him free, or did his birth in the Danish West Indies make him a slave regardless? The judge determined that slavery was still illegal in Denmark, but that Jonatan was to go back to St. Croix as Schimmelmann’s property.

After this unfortunate sentence, Jonatan escaped immediately, and turned up in a tiny port in East Iceland several years later. Two centuries would pass before authorities in Copenhagen would learn Jonatan’s whereabouts. He settled down, married Katrín Antoníusdóttir, and lived until 1827. It is not known how he was received or perceived by the community of Icelanders, many of whom had never seen a “Negro.” Two of his three children survived and became respected citizens of the community, perhaps indicating a wider acceptance of Jonatan.

The life and eventual ancestors of Hans Jonatan highlights the complicated genetic legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, and changes the collective perception of historic ethnic “purity.” EUROTAST fellow Anuradha Jagadeesan at the University of Iceland is reconstructing the genome of Hans Jonatan from genetic data available through his descendants. Jagadeesan is using an innovative technique based on the detection of shared identical chromosome segments to determine parental origin. From this gathered information, scientists will reconstruct Hans Jonatan’s genome to make inferences about his phenotype and biogeographical ancestry, setting the standard for the use of genetics to understand the legacy of long dead individuals as well as to better understand the temporal fragmentation of the genome.

Hans Jonatan’s compelling story shows the unique interplay of historical research and genetics in a surprising venue—the seemingly remote and homogenous population of Iceland, as well as the potential for monumental shifts in our understanding of ethnic origins.

ResearchBlogging.org

Kristín Loftsdóttir, & Gísli Pálsson (2013). Black on White: Danish Colonialism, Iceland and the Caribbean Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6202-6_3