Professor explores foundations of liberty

Anthropology scholar Mark P. Leone wrote a book melding his 25 years of Annapolis digs with ideas of democracy, class

April 23, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Mark P. Leone likes to look below the surface in Annapolis.

Best known around the city as the man who heads the University of Maryland's digs under old houses, Leone recently published a comprehensive book that covers several centuries and classes of society in the state capital. In The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis, Leone hopes to stir debate about how to read the signs of the capital city's past.

For him, it comes down to a constant struggle for more liberty for those who were largely or legally invisible - slaves, free blacks, women, the working classes.

"There was a quest for being equal, an intense struggle to understand the dominant ideology," he said in an interview last week.

Leading teams of students, the University of Maryland anthropology professor has spent the past 25 years digging up artifacts and mapping public spaces in the city's center. The places he has investigated include a Colonial garden and summer house, which once belonged to Declaration of Independence signer William Paca. A few blocks away, he and his students also recovered troves of broken buttons, dishes, marbles and other remnants of domestic life from a now-vanished African-American 20th-century residential block.

Now standing on that same block off Church Circle is the Anne Arundel County Courthouse and a Victorian A.M.E. church building, part of the Banneker Douglass Museum of African American History and Culture.

Leone's project has preserved bits and pieces of the former life of the neighborhood - close-knit and flourishing a century ago - and now on exhibit in the museum's first floor.

Leone wrote of a turning point in his career, when Barbara Jackson, former associate director of the museum, urged him to explore the post-Civil War era of freedom. "We're tired of hearing about slavery," she said.

"It was as though it were a gift from God," Leone recalled in an interview.

At opposite ends of the social spectrum, the empowered and the powerless both left physical evidence to measure, weigh, sift through and contemplate. Leone believes the self-contained city holds larger American patterns and lessons - past and present.

"Annapolis is about seeing," he said, "even about the control of sight. Some buildings invite and command the attention of the subject, and the subjects are you and me."

The Baroque design of the heart of Annapolis - a Colonial governor's placement of a Church of England steeple on one circle and the government State House atop a higher circle - are symbols of the empowered elite. And, as Leone points out, they are impossible to miss.

"The [Maryland State House] top does not look like a dome; it looks like a cross between a small dome and a pagoda-like, Chinese Chippendale tower," Leone writes.

The order these signature buildings impose and the sightlines leading up to them from other city streets, Leone says, are no accident. The buildings, he says, help keep everything in their proper place - including the various social classes. They are, in a way, mechanisms of social control.

"I intended the book to be provocative," Leone said. "If it can bring another level of discourse about American democracy, then it's served its purpose."

Leone's analysis, influenced by French thinker Michel Foucault and German economic philosopher Karl Marx, is not popular in some quarters of this pristine city. The Historic Annapolis Foundation, founded by the late St. Clair Wright, doyenne of the historic preservation movement, recently parted ways with him.

The mutual split is ironic, since it was St. Clair Wright who first sought out Leone and urged him to undertake the Archaeology in Annapolis project. He describes her as a "gigantic intellect, a freedom fighter."

The foundation's historian, Jean Russo, who read the book in manuscript, said she found it "enlightening," though she was not persuaded by all the author's arguments. "Where many of us might see only bits of china, bent nails and toothbrushes, Mark finds evidence of an ideology that legitimized vast social and economic inequalities," Russo said.

The printed word and changing typefaces in the Maryland Gazette are another source of fascination for Leone. The newspaper was considered a lively Colonial forum in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Excavating Jonas Green's Annapolis print shop, where the Gazette was originally printed, is the subject of the chapter "The Rise of Popular Opinion."

Randall McGuire, a fellow archaeologist and professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, said Leone's book is a profound report of major finds during 24 years of state- and city-funded digging in Annapolis. In the past 15 years, he noted, Leone's teams have recovered a religious hoodoo cache buried near kitchen hearths, which reveal certain spiritual practices that slaves brought from Africa.

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