Researchers unearth signs of a lasting black tradition

Ritual Hoodoo materials found in Annapolis house

February 20, 2000|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Matches, peach pits, bottles and buttons found beneath the kitchen floor of the John Brice II House in Annapolis have proved to be more than randomly buried ancient trash.

The 130-year-old artifacts, found dry and mostly intact, are enticements, traps and petitions to spirits. They were created by free African-Americans practicing Hoodoo, a religion passed down from its West African roots, archaeologists say.

Researchers concluded the items and their positioning beneath the house formed a cosmogram -- a West African symbol of the circle of life that is similar to a cross in shape. This one was unusual for its size -- it is composed of more than 300 artifacts -- and for its location on the Chesapeake Bay.

Hoodoo sought to control spirits through the use of objects.

The discovery, researchers said last week, offers a glimpse into the culture and practices of post-Civil War African-Americans. It is significant in that it shows how culture, passed down through generations, was Americanized as the tradition was handed down.

"As opposed to Afro-Caribbean, this is African-American," said Mark Leone, chairman of the University of Maryland Anthropology department and director of the Brice house project.

"It's an adaptation by people of African descent in North America," he said. "What we're looking at is Victorian-era African-American traditions that are the product of 200 years of North American exposure."

A cosmogram has four points that represent birth, life's peak and descent, death and afterlife or re-birth, according to art historian Robert Farris Thompson, whose book "Flash of the Spirit" explores the continuation of African traditions among members of the African diaspora.

The points also represent a connection between this life and the afterlife, and served as a means of communicating with the spirits.

Archaeologists have discovered that African slaves and their ancestors used the cosmogram shape -- usually mapped out on a floor -- to establish a point through which roaming spirits had to pass.

Everyday items were then buried at the four points and in the center of the symbol to attract, direct, capture and manipulate spirits that were believed to protect or act on behalf of the living. Some items were used as symbols of a problem or person who needed to be controlled, Leone said.

For example, bent nails found among the artifacts at the house might have symbolized rheumatism. Doll parts could symbolize a part of the body with which one was having trouble. Feathers symbolized the ability or wish to fly away.

A personal item such as a button marked with a person's initials or a person's hair could be a symbol of that person. Buttons pierced four times also represented the cosmogram itself. Mirrors or glass were used to attract spirits, red pieces of cloth made conjuring more powerful, and bottles could be used to bottle the spirit up so that it could be controlled, Leone said.

Once the items were buried -- in the house beneath wooden floorboards and bricks -- a ritualistic dance was performed over the cosmogram to call the spirits, scholars say.

"It was a deliberate effort to repaint a connection to this belief system," said Gladys-Marie Fry, a retired professor who also helped interpret the artifacts.

Students and archaeologists working on the University of Maryland's Archaeology in Annapolis project discovered the items between 1998 and 1999 while unearthing the 50-foot-by-30-foot kitchen and laundry area in the east wing of the historic house. Matthew D. Cochran, an anthropology graduate student, and Jessica Neuwirth of the Historic Annapolis Foundation determined that the items discovered were parts of a cosmogram.

Other students and professionals had found similar items, buried in a similar pattern, during digs at the Charles Carroll house and the Slayton house in 1991. Those finds showed that African religious practices had been alive among slaves in the 1700s and flourished into the late 1800s.

But the number of items found at the Brice house proved a much more extensively used and well-established practice. In the center of the room, deposits were laid in a circle 10 feet wide, and the items were layered, showing the cosmogram was used from about 1870 to 1910. A possible source of the cosmogram is Brice house servant Sarah Watkins, who served in the house during that time.

Fry said last week that the discovery, especially in the less-populated Chesapeake region, shows that such religious practices were coherent and widespread. That is important because symbols associated with the cosmogram might also have been used on African-American-made textiles, furniture and pottery as a way of communicating, similar to the way Negro spirituals, drawn from religious practices, were used to send covert messages.

"It helps us to understand a widespread practice of slave coding," Fry said. "It didn't just concern trying to communicate with the spirits, but also to communicate with each other."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.