Artifacts of slave culture found in Annapolis dig Caches include humble treasures of buttons, pins, beads


ANNAPOLIS - The ground floor of the old townhouse on Duke of Gloucester Street stands bare. The last owner died, everything has been stripped to the brick walls and dark wooden floors, and archaeologists are poking about and finding secrets from the house's 18th-century past.

They are secrets of the early American slave culture. While the white family members upstairs went about their transplanted English lives, practicing conventional Christianity, African-Americans downstairs cooked, did the laundry and, though baptized, still practiced rituals of their former West African religions. They might have been slaves in the New World, but a vital part of them steadfastly clung to their old world, to Africa.

The evidence, archaeologists and other scholars say, lay beneath the bricks of the hearths and hidden in the northeast corners of the rooms. (Why the northeast, no one knows.) Excavations there have uncovered caches of humble treasures: brass pins, buttons and beads, rock crystals, a piece of a crab claw, disks pierced with holes, a brass ring and bell, pieces of glass and bone, and the arms and legs of a small doll.

No accident

"These things are definitely not there by accident," said Lynn D. Jones, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland College Park who is investigating the lives of African-Americans in Annapolis in the 18th century.

Walking through the empty house, Dr. Mark P. Leone, a `f professor of anthropology at the university and director of the excavations, said, "We are seeing not a history of oppression, but a history of responses to oppression, discovered through archaeology." Scholars studying the artifacts are reminded of rituals in African cultures, past and present, to honor and call up the spirits of ancestors, cast healing spells, protect against harm and divine the future.

In such rituals, materials with symbolic meaning would be put together in a bundle known as a nkisi. The objects thus became charmed, charged with the power to produce fortune or misfortune or heal certain maladies.

Some would call this voodoo, as still practiced in Haiti, or hoodoo, the North American variant, or simply black magic. Many scholars eschew such terms as pejorative, preferring to call these the ritual practices of African traditional religion. By any name, these rituals by African-American slaves had to be conducted in secret, down in the kitchen, where the whites seldom ventured. Such was the concern over the possibly disruptive influences of African practices that some states banned the beating of drums by slaves.

Even so, knowledge of these rituals passed through generations and seems to have been widespread throughout the 18th century and up through Emancipation, during the Civil War. Similar artifacts have been found hidden in another old house in Annapolis, and a review of archaeological records reveals several finds of such materials in slave quarters elsewhere in Maryland and in Virginia. The autobiographies of slaves and former slaves contain recollections of occult practices involving roots, coins, iron, fingernail clippings and other materials believed to have magical properties.

Beliefs not forgotten

"When slaves were brought over or were born here or sold to different owners, they didn't forget the beliefs they were brought up with," Jones said. "We're finding the evidence more often now because we are aware of it."

The discoveries in the Annapolis houses are the product of a growing emphasis on the long-neglected African element in American archaeology. Recent excavations have explored a black cemetery in New York City, a black settlement in early Massachusetts and various material remains of slavery in the South. After all, the African-Americans were here as early as the white colonists and shared in building a nation, stamping its identity with their muscle, spirit and music.

In a revised edition of his book "In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life," published this summer by Anchor/Doubleday, Dr. James Deetz, an archaeologist at the University of Virginia, wrote, "One of the more important developments in American historical archaeology during the past two decades has been the emergence of African American archaeology as a critical component of the field."

Archaeology in Annapolis, a joint project of the Historic Annapolis Foundation and the University of Maryland, has increasingly focused on excavating sites that promise to yield insights into how slaves maintained at least some of their African identity in a white-dominated society. Hence the interest in the Slayton House, a four-story brick structure built in 1774, a year before the outbreak of the American Revolution.

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