Unearthing a house's spiritual secrets

Archaeologists' discovery of a cache of objects in an Annapolis home conjures up clues to an ancient West African spiritual practice.

July 24, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Two small bundles of rusted nails and a pierced white disc might seem ordinary at first glance, but to archaeologist Mark P. Leone and his team of students from the University of Maryland, College Park, they represent a major discovery.

The items were part of an African-American hoodoo cache concealed in the hearth of a Georgian mansion in Annapolis that was unearthed this summer. And to Leone, the striking part is that they are not that old. They date from the early 20th century, a time when ancient folk practices like hoodoo were thought to have all but vanished.

"This corroborates the work we've done on the survival of West African spirit traditions into the early 20th century," Leone said.

The most telling find, he said, was a pierced white disc that had been manufactured to be part of an electrical insulator. The quarter-sized disc had been transformed into a symbol of the spirit realm, or "cosmogram."

"The [electrical disc] can't be a moment older than the manufactured parts," Leone said inside the Revolutionary War-era house, now empty and under renovation. He was given permission to investigate the historic house's secrets by the new owners, former New York police commissioner Howard Safir and his wife, Carol, as a service to city history.

Leone, an expert in the movement of African slaves to the United States, and their culture, had a hunch the house's secrets would be found intact in its well-preserved wooden and brick bones. The only thing that had disturbed the caches, which were used as medicinal remedies, was a sewer pipe. "One look would tell an archaeologist it's all here," Leone said as he walked to the basement kitchen hearth.

"Because spirits come and go through openings," he added, "you'll find such caches in a hearth, a doorway or the threshold of a stairway."

What remains to be discovered is who prepared the medicinal caches, which were intended to ease, cure or ward off sickness or pain and are known as "spiritual pharmacopoeias."

"It was likely a woman who put it down," Leone mused. "A woman gifted with the ability to manage spirits."

That woman likely labored in the large downstairs kitchen as a cook or some kind of domestic servant, Leone said. Though she was not a slave - the finding dates decades after the emancipation of blacks in the South - she was versed in ancient spirit traditions that slaves had brought from West Africa.

There were several things the kitchen conjurer knew by heart, probably by oral tale-telling, Leone said. First, spirits are considered the remains of the dead. Spirits wander through woods and water and will try to find a way back to their original home, Leone said. Finally, Leone said, spirits "can be directed. That's what these caches do."

In all likelihood, the hoodoo bundles were assembled and hidden without the knowledge of the house's white owners.

Alexandra C. Jones, 27, a native of Washington, will try to identify the kitchen conjurer from the shadows of history. For her doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, she will spend hours analyzing the artifacts and town records in Leone's lab.

Leone described Jones as an "inheritor of scientific exploration" because she is exploring the past.

The rusty nails and white pierced disc are proof of the human spirit's endurance, Jones said.

"It's about preserving who you are," she said, "and having power over your own self."

Leone, who has studied African-American culture and archaeology in Annapolis for more than a dozen years, said he works with both city and Historic Annapolis Foundation officials. He has made Annapolis the focus of his summer work. During the school year, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses.

Over the years, he has developed a healthy respect for - and even belief in - the power of hoodoo and other West African spirit traditions.

"The important thing is that hoodoo works for those that practice its remedies," Leone said.

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