Relics of a lost faith Archaeological dig: Annapolis artifacts show slaves retained African religious rites.

September 24, 1996

CHRISTIAN CHURCHES are such a dominant force in the black community that it is easy to forget that they were one of the results of the Americanization process of people of African origin. Most of the slaves who were brought here from the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa were not Christians. They came from tribes with well-developed animistic religions and believed in spirits, good and bad. Conversion to Christianity came in America.

It is one of the tragedies of slavery that these ancient religious traditions have disappeared almost without a trace. That's why archaeological work conducted in a joint project sponsored by the Historic Annapolis Foundation and the University of Maryland is so fascinating. Excavators digging on the ground floor of the Slayton House, a four-story brick structure built in 1774 in the state capital, have discovered hidden brass pins, buttons, beads and other objects which they are convinced were used by slaves practicing their West African religion.

"We are seeing not a history of oppression but a history of responses to oppression, discovered through archaeology," says Dr. Mark P. Leone, director of the excavations on Duke of Gloucester Street.

During the hundred years leading to the American Revolution, Maryland was the second largest slave-holding colony in British North America. Slaves were common in Anne Arundel County, whose economy was to a large extent based on tobacco farming. In 1776, some 9,000 slaves were engaged in field work and other tasks.

The discoveries of artifacts used in religious rituals suggest that in their private moments slaves tried to retain their ancient beliefs and practice their faith. But since those artifacts were hidden beneath the bricks of the hearths and in the northeast corners of the rooms, such rites apparently had to be conducted in secret from slave owners' families.

In recent years, much pioneering archaeological work has been done in Anne Arundel, where the county government even employs an archaeologist. The Slayton House dig offers a unique peek into the distant past and practices which were thought to have disappeared without a trace. It goes a long way toward filling a gap in American archaeology.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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