Archaeologists digging in the basement of the Charles Carroll House in Annapolis have discovered a cache of dozens of objects that are linked to West African religious roots.
The ritual objects are believed to have been buried beneath the floorboards by slaves serving the Carroll family in the early 1800s.
The polished pebbles, rock crystals, disks and bones are identical to sacred objects that were used to tell the future, communicate with the dead and assure good luck in a part of West Africa that is now Sierra Leone.
"These artifacts clearly . . . show that African religiouspractices remained alive at least until 1820" despite efforts by slave owners to suppress them, said Mark P. Leone, project director for Archaeology in Annapolis and professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.
For black Americans today, he said, it is a tangible link to their African heritage.
"Many of Carroll's slaves' descendants are alive in Maryland today," he said, "and this gives them, their families and implicitly many African-Americans a direct and clear archaeological heritage to a specific area in West Africa, and to that area's long-term archaeological heritage."
The dig was sponsored by the Charles Carroll House Inc. and organized by the Historic Annapolis Foundation and UM.
The Charles Carroll House was owned in the early 1800s by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, wealthy landowner and businessman and last living signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Launched in June, the dig took place in the 13-room basement of the five-story house. The ritual objects were found between July and Sept. 21 in a food-preparation room next door to the household kitchen.
Broken pottery found nearby dates the ritual objects to between 1800 and 1820.
"The ritual stuff was definitely deliberately buried, or it would not have been found so close together," Leone said. "We found the vast majority of them in one small part of one small square."
The objects ranged in size from inch-long crystals of smoky quartz to much larger stones weighing 2 or 3 pounds.
"We understand their function because rock crystals, disks, bones and smooth pebbles found together occur exclusively in slave contexts in the greater Chesapeake area," Leone said.
Charles Carroll was active in the slave trade and owned more than 1,100 slaves during his life, Leone said. More important, records show that many of his slaves came from Sierra Leone.
"Scholars who understand the contemporary and past religious practices of Sierra Leone speak of the use of disks, polished pebbles and shells . . . as sacred objects tied to religious practices involving telling the future, communicating with ancestors and assuring luck," Leone said.
Leone said he learned from Frederick Lamp, curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, that religious ritual practices in Sierra Leone date at least to the 1600s.
It is very unlikely, Leone said, that the ritual objects found in the Carroll House were brought to Annapolis by Carroll's slaves. It is more likely that the objects were made here, and represent practices and knowledge passed down by earlier arrivals to later generations.
"There is a lot of ongoing scholarship involved in finding how similar objects used in Sierra Leone and West Africa in general were turned into folkloristic practices in the colonies, and how those traditions may survive today," he said.
"It is now time to tie together the many strands of scholarship, as well as the community involvement that news of this discovery has brought to light."
Leone said he and Barbara Jackson, curator of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, are "very interested in bringing together scholars and descendants, archaeologists and historians in a way that ties the loose threads together."
The objects found in the Charles Carroll House are currently on D display at the Shiplap House Museum, on Pinckney Street near = the harbor, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For information, call E (301) 626-1033.