Child's grave holds clues

Rarity: Traces of a burial suggest to archaeologists that London Town slaves interred a child beneath the floor, in keeping with African tradition.

October 27, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists digging in the former Colonial port of London Town near Annapolis have come across the grave of a child about 6 years old, buried alone more than two centuries ago, apparently beneath the floor of a long-vanished dwelling.

Discounting other explanations - including murder - Anne Arundel County archaeologist Al Luckenbach and his staff have tentatively concluded that the child was a slave, interred beneath the house in observance of traditions brought from Africa.

If so, it would be the first such slave burial reported in the Chesapeake region, and perhaps the first in North America. "That would be important in itself," Luckenbach said.

Lisa Plumley, who directed the dig, called the find "immensely important to the interpretation of London Town," and especially to those investigating the lives of slaves in an urban Colonial setting.

Neglected for generations, slave archaeology has become an important focus among archaeologists, and they are particularly alert to any evidence of African cultural "survivals" in slave settings.

London Town, on the South River near Annapolis, was founded in 1683. It quickly became a key tobacco port and an important ferry crossing on the road from Williamsburg, Va., to Philadelphia. It declined after the mid-1700s, when tobacco exports were diverted to other towns. Only the ferry master's home and a 23-acre archaeological park, called Historic London Town and Gardens, remain.

In 1995, archaeologists working on a plot overlooking the lane that once led to the ferry dock exposed traces of a structure 28 feet square. Luckenbach believes it was built in 1725, perhaps as a tenement for slaves. It later became a carpenter's shop.

Within the outlines of the building, and neatly aligned with its walls and floor beams, the archaeologists at the time noticed a rectangular stain in the soil, about a foot wide and 3 1/2 feet long. "It looked like an unusual post hole," but nothing more, Luckenbach said.

Returning Oct. 16 before the site is given over to the planned reconstruction of the carpenter shop, archaeologist Jordan Swank began to excavate the dark rectangle.

He knew it was once a hole, dug and refilled for a purpose that he hoped would reveal itself by the objects, or the soil-color patterns he encountered as he carefully peeled back its contents.

Soon it did. First, there was the unmistakable gray outline of a small coffin, punctuated by rusted nails. It was wider at the shoulders and tapered toward the ends.

Near the head end, Swank uncovered an arc of 11 small human teeth - six molars, two premolars, two incisors and one canine, suggesting a child of about 6.

With the teeth as guideposts, Plumley and Luckenbach can trace the faint gray outline of the child's skull and leg bones, like a ghost skeleton that has melted into the clay.

Given the state of decay, and the grave's alignment with the house, Luckenbach said "everything points to a 1725-1730 burial. I think there is a 75 to 80 percent chance this burial is under the floorboards."

And "if it's under the floorboards, the only people we can connect this with are the slaves," he said. "Are we positive? Hell, no."

But it is a logical conclusion. The English and Scots in London Town would have used nearby burial grounds, Luckenbach argues. A murderer would not have bothered with a coffin.

That left the town's enslaved blacks. Luckenbach and Plumley began to find evidence that some blacks - free and enslaved, in Africa and the Caribbean - buried some family members beneath their homes.

Archaeologist Ann Martell of R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc. Inc. in Frederick said she encountered just such a burial a decade ago in South Africa: a female skeleton found beneath a structure Dutch colonists built to house black slaves.

Farm workers on the property, likely descended from those slaves, asked Martell to rebury the remains. "When I suggested to them the unusual circumstances of finding her under the floor, they seemed to think it was nothing unusual," she said. "I suspect it was more common than we suspect."

Syracuse University anthropologist Christopher R. DeCorse said below-floor burials were common among many West African cultures. In his studies of Elmina, an old trading port in Ghana, he said, "the vast majority of those [burials] came from below the house floors." Some were children.

Coffins were not typical in West Africa, DeCorse said. But slaves in Maryland - particularly those accustomed to building coffins for whites - might have adopted the practice.

DeCorse knew of no other subfloor burials by slaves reported in North America. But it has been noted in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Where they do occur, he said, "it would seem to ... be more consistent with West African practices than European."

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