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The Slaves of Lagos

EPISODE 1 | Skeletons in the Algarve

Today, the Portuguese port city of Lagos on the Algarve is primarily a magnet for tourists. Visitors wandering around the well-preserved old town will eventually happen upon the historic slave market (Mercado de Escravos): Towards the end of the Middle Ages Lagos was primarily a trading centre for slaves from Africa. This is evidenced, not least, by a grim discovery that was made during the course of the construction of a new multi-story parking lot: Numerous human skeletons that give the impression of a human garbage tip. Anthropologist Dr. Maria Teresa Ferreira from the University of Coimbra in Portugal suspects that the remains here are those of slaves. But who were these people? What sorry fate did they suffer? What new information about the history of slavery can we glean from the research into these skeletons?

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The research project
During the 15th century, the port of the Portuguese city of Lagos was a hub for slave ships from Africa; from here, the human cargo was transshipped for transportation on to other locations in Portugal and Europe. In an emergency excavation on a site earmarked for the construction of an underground parking lot in the district of Valle da Gafaria, which is located outside the Medieval city walls, back in 2009 archaeologists discovered two human burial sites. One belonged to a leper colony, while the second was mixed with a six-meter-thick layer of urban waste from the 15th-17th centuries. This second site contained no less than 158 human skeletons, of which 107 were adults, 49 adolescents, and two were people of an indeterminate age. A number of finds indicate that the people buried here were African slaves: Some of the people were shackled, and many of them wore objects of African origin such as rings and necklaces and had deliberately modified teeth. All the people were buried in a refuse pit without burial rites. The first morphometric and genetic analyses prove the African origin of the people buried in Valle da Gafaria. An AMS C14 investigation dated the beginning of the burials to the time between 1420 and 1480 – and thus around the same time as the first arrival of ships of African slaves in Lagos, according to historical references.

The find at Valle da Gafaria is unique in Portugal; in fact, even worldwide only a few slave cemeteries have been discovered, all of which are located in the New World and date from a significantly later period. The aim of the research work being conducted by Dr. Maria Teresa Ferreira is to comprehensively examine the skeletons discovered in Lagos using the methods of bioarchaeology – and to document the life and death of the people buried at Valle da Gafaria. The central questions relate first of all to determining the relevant biological profile (age, sex, origin, build), the surveying of the paleodemography of the entire find and to the examination of migration movements as well as growth and development factors. Paleopathological analysis should give us indications of illnesses and thus also nutrition, patterns of activity, living conditions and any traumas suffered through violence and mistreatment both before and after death. The Lagos collection offers the opportunity to learn more about the earliest phase of transatlantic trade with slaves during the early modern period, beyond the historical sources we already have. The results of the research project will not only be published in a specialist journal, but will also be presented at national and international academic conferences.

Project leadership:

Dr Maria Teresa Ferreira

Location:

Lagos, Portugal

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