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African-American Archaeology

Newsletter of the African-American Archaeology Network

Number 11, Summer 1994

Thomas R. Wheaton, Editor

Religion and Freedom: Artifacts Indictate that African Culture Persisted Even in Slavery

by Eric Adams (Omni Magazine Vol. 16, No. 2, November 1993 p. 8) Reprinted by permission, copyright 1993, Omni Publications International Ltd.)

More than two centuries ago, in Annapolis, Maryland, a Black slave living in the home of a prominent Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in a dark corner of a basement workshop a collection of quartz crystals, polished stones, bone disks, and pierced coins.

No one knows for sure the identity of the slave or why he or she buried these treasures beneath the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. But for all the unanswered questions, this particular find could be, as one Yale University art historian calls it, a "Rosetta Stone" in the study of the birth of African-American culture.

The cache, containing more than 20 items and covered in the dirt by a bowl with an asterisk painted inside it, was discovered two years ago during a decade-long project funded by the Charles Carroll House, Inc. Archaeologists and students from the University of Maryland's College Park campus, led by anthropology professor, Mark P. Leone, are excavating sites around Annapolis searching for clues about the daily life of both enslaved and free African Americans.

"This find is so exciting because of the specificity of it," says Yale's Robert Farris Thompson, who examined the artifacts last year. He recognized them as elements of African culture, indicating that such culture survived during slavery. Historians [although not historical archaeologists! ed.] had previously assumed that White society thoroughly quashed the expression of African culture and religion by slaves.

Africans in Kongo, a region in southwest Zaïre and northern Angola, still use the sort of items in the cache, according to Thompson. They wear the pierced coins, for example, on a string or chain he says. Kongo parents often put them on small children as charms. "If they're characterized by chubbiness -- ntandu -- it will help them achieve thinness -- mikaso," he explains. The bone disks, also pierced and worn around the body, represent ideas at the core of Kongo classical religion, he continues. "They have a very precise phrase to tell us why they would want to wear them: lunda lukengolo lwa lunga, or `keep your circle complete.' As long as the circle is not broken, you're safe."

"All major world religions have some way of miniaturizing their religion. Right here, hidden in the soil of Annapolis, is the Kongo equivalent to a miniature crucifix, a small irreducible essence of the religion," says Thompson of the bone disks, adding that the crystals and the asterisk -- a "cosmogram" -- are also significant elements of Kongo religion.

Charles Carroll, whose family was among the wealthiest in Maryland, was one of the largest slave importers in Annapolis, bringing them from West Africa, including Sierra Leone. Nevertheless, Maryland still had fewer slaves than most other colonies and states, making it harder, historians had reasoned, to perpetuate many native customs. Moreover, as the archaeological project is revealing, Blacks in Annapolis gave the appearance of living much like Whites did. Free Blacks, in particular, used Western goods purchased from the same markets Whites used.

But the Carroll House dig, besides raising very serious questions about how successful Whites were in rubbing out African culture, has also changed the way archaeologists and historians view the development of African-American culture, according to George Logan, site supervisor for the dig. The artifacts and other material turned up in the dig show that African and European cultures didn't remain separate. "It's a creolization, a process of different cultures coming together and forming a different product on its own," he says.

Understanding how individual elements of African-American history combined to create a separate, and ultimately free, culture is crucial, says project leader Leone. In fact, it provided the motivation for this part of the project.. "Our 'mandate' from the African-American community, whom we were collaborating with very closely on the formulation of our research, was to discover what conditions were like in freedom," Leone explains. "They said they were familiar with slavery, but they wanted to hear about freedom -- their freedom and their ancestors' freedom."

Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia

Submitted by Niven Laird,

Birchtown in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, was founded by Black Loyalists in 1783, reaching a peak population of c. 1,521 in 1786, declining quickly by 1791, when much of the population emigrated to Sierra Leone. While the village is now predominantly non-African-American, its heritage is being protected by the Shelburne County Cultural Awareness Society, led by Elizabeth Cromwell, a descendant of the original settlers.

The greatest threat so far to Birchtown's heritage is the proposal to locate a regional landfill a few kilometers from the village. This threat was the catalyst for a 1993 survey, which resulted in the identification of 22 features in a 4 hectare area. The most significant feature was a late 18th century cellar located just northwest of the village. While I'm convinced the cellar belonged to an original settler, there is no land grant documentation to back this up. I'll be returning to the site on June 27 (our funding was approved last week) as part of a fieldschool run by Dr. S. A. Davis of Saint Mary's University in Halifax. We'll be excavating the 18th century site, surveying the remaining area, and participating in a public awareness program on the African-American heritage of Shelburne County.

While I'm excited to be a part of the preservation of this important aspect of Shelburne's history, I'm disturbed by rumours that non-archaeologists are talking of "exploiting Blacks". Hopefully we'll be able to overcome this kind of thinking.

If you'd like more information on Birchtown or the SCCAS please don't hesitate to ask. I'll be in the field for the next month but my wife will be checking my mail. I look forward to hearing from you.

Currently in Annapolis

Submitted by George Logan,

I am writing to you about two separate research projects focusing on African American history in Maryland. The first is a salvage/ mitigation excavation in Annapolis, which you have probably heard about. Archaeology in Annapolis is conducting excavations (paid for by Anne Arundel County), on "the Courthouse site," in the parking lot behind the Anne Arundel County Courthouse. The courthouse is on Church Circle in Annapolis' Historic District. We excavated there in 1990 and made two important discoveries. First, extensive archaeological deposits from a later nineteenth through mid twentieth century predominantly African American neighborhood lie beneath the asphalt surface. Second, evidence of 17th-century occupation is also present on the site. The excavations are being completed prior to construction of a 280,000 sq. ft. Courthouse expansion on the site. These two periods--not well represented in most presentations of Annapolis' past, are our primary research focuses. I worked on the 1990 public programs, and have been asked to coordinate site tours for the current excavations.

I would appreciate any help you could give spreading the word about our open site days and free public site tours. The site is open to visitors on a walk-in basis: Every Friday through July 8 -- 10:00am-2:00pm. Also, the site will be open Sundays June 19 and June 26 -- 11:00am-4:00pm. We hope to attract more local visitors on Sundays, but everyone is welcome any of those times. For more information or to make group reservations (not necessary, but helpful), please call the Historic Annapolis Foundation Archaeology lab (410) 268-7770 Mon-Fri 8:00-4:30 My only regret is that this is such a short-term project with little lead time given for planning public outreach. With all the archaeological resources and the local interest, we really have our hands full.

The second project is in its infancy stages, and I just want to mention it here. I work as the archaeologist for the Carroll Park Foundation in Baltimore. In the park is Mount Clare mansion, a pre-revolutionary war period structure that Charles Carroll, Barrister had built. (This Carroll, was a distant cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton) The Foundation's goal is to develop the site as a living history attraction. My primary interest in the site is trying to learn about and help interpret the site from the perspectives of African American slaves, European indentured servants and convict laborers who lived and worked there and at the adjacent Baltimore Company Ironworks. If accepted I will present a paper at the SHA conference on this topic. My first step in this work will be to study written records associated with the two sites in an effort to build some site-specific contexts for future analysis and interpretation. If you are interested I could either mail or FAX you some additional materials: Calendar of Events for the Annapolis project; a brochure about Carroll Park; or a copy of my SHA proposal. My name is George Logan and my work phone number is (410) 405-1418. My home address is 1430 A Ravine Way, Arnold MD 21012, but you can also reach me through e-mail.

An Overview of the Phillips Memorial Cemetery

Submitted by Helen Danzeiser Dockall, Texas A&M University

In the Spring of 1991, during the widening of State Highway 3 in Texas City, Texas, highway workers exposed a number of grave shafts of the existing Albert J. Phillips Memorial Cemetery. The Texas Department of Transportation contracted with Texas A&M University to remove the burials. The crew of archaeologists and bioarchaeologists spent the summer of 1991 and part of 1992 excavating and analyzing burials, some of which were located under the existing highway. All analyses of the excavated material were done on the same day the burials were excavated as all burials had to be reinterred on the same day they were excavated.

A search of documents suggested that five graves within the highway right-of-way had been located and moved during the original construction of the road in 1927. However, the Texas A&M crew located 53 burial features during the two field seasons. Historic records and information from community members indicated that the interments in the excavated portion of the cemetery occurred between the late 1890s and 1927.

Of these 53 burial features, only 44 contained some skeletal remains, and only four were complete or almost complete. The typical individual was represented solely by bones of the hands and feet, a few isolated vertebrae, and a few long bones, usually the tibia and fibula. This patterning could be explained if the workers in 1927 had exhumed and moved those bodies in the immediate right-of-way of the road, and if skeletal remains were removed, and caskets and associated hardware were left behind. Presumably, those bones that were not enclosed in clothing (such as hands and feet) or those small skeletal elements that could be easily missed were accidentally left behind. The highway was then built over the remains. Those bodies found by archaeologists that were relatively complete may have been missed by the highway workers, possibly because the graves lacked markers. Conversations with community members visiting the site corroborate this reconstruction of events. One informant stated that he remembered workers opening coffins, removing bodies, and leaving the coffins in the ground.

All individuals were interred in coffins that were either rectangular, rectangular canted, or hexagonal. One had a tapered-to-the-feet design. All individuals were interred with their heads to the west, and many of the coffins were placed in coffin boxes (or liners). Mortuary hardware from the site included handles, plaques, thumbscrews and escutcheons. Only twelve of the excavated graves lacked handles of some kind. Few grave goods were recovered from the site, due primarily to the relocation of burials in the 1920s and to the stripping of soil from the site prior to the arrival of the Texas A&M crew. However, portions of glass jars and bowls, a milk bottle, and broken pots were associated with some graves. Interestingly, in spite of the importance of shells in African-American mortuary practices (Fenn 1985, Jordan 1982, Vlach 1977 and 1978) and in spite of the proximity of the cemetery to the Texas Gulf Coast, no shells were found in the cemetery.

A report providing the results of almost two years of analysis of the data will be ready for review in June of this year. Researchers other than myself associated with this project include: Joseph F. Powell; Leah Carson Powell; and D. Gentry Steele. In addition to the primary report, papers related to this site have been presented at the sixty-third annual meeting of the Texas Archeological Society (Dockall et al. 1992) and the fifty-eighth meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (Powell and Dockall 1993).

The site of the Albert J. Phillips Memorial Cemetery has provided an excellent opportunity to study the life and death of a group of African Americans living in a small Texas town during the late 1800s and early 1900s. For more information, the author can be contacted at the Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-4352.

References Cited

Dockall, H.D., J.F. Powell and D.G. Steele
1992    Excavation and Analysis of 41GV125: An Historic African-American Cemetery in Galveston County, Texas. Paper presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Texas Archeological Society, Corpus Christi, Texas.

Fenn, E.A.
1985    Honoring the Ancestors: Kongo-American Graves in the American South. Southern Exposure 13:42-47.

Jordan, T.G.
1982    Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Powell, L.C. and H.D. Dockall
1993    Folk Narratives and Archaeology: A Case Study from an Historic African-American Cemetery. Paper presented at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

Vlach, J.M.
1977    The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. 1978 Graveyards and Afro-American Art. In Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South. Special edition, Southern Exposure, A. Tulles, ed., pp 161-165. Chapel Hill.

The First Africans in Virginia

Submitted by Tom Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

A recently discovered historical document indicates that the African population of Virginia during the Virginia Company period (1607-1624) was larger and more widely dispersed geographically than previously had been thought. The first Africans known to have arrived in Virginia came in August or September, 1619, and numbered "20 and odd". They were purchased by George Yeardley and Abraham Piersey, who both lived in Jamestown, then Virginia's capital. However, a new group of Virginia Company records discovered by Dr. David Ransome contains an official muster or census of the Virginia colony for March, 1619/1620. This document reads in part:

Others not Christians in the service of the English

Indians in the service of several planters 4
Negroes in the service of several planters 32
negro men 15
negro women 17

taken from a microfilm copy of the Ferrar papers compiled by David Ransome (Item 159, Ferrar Papers, Magdalene College, Cambridge, Microfilm Academic Publishers)

The muster shows that in March, 1620, only seven months after the "first" Africans arrived, Africans constituted 3.3 percent of all non-Indians in Virginia and that they were living at multiple locations in the colony. Since the total number of late Company period sites in Virginia is not very large, the odds of encountering traces of these early Africans during archaeological field work are high enough to merit some serious attention. Archaeologists should keep the possibility of an African presence in mind whenever they encounter an early seventeenth-century site in Virginia.

Thesis Corner

Ms. Ricki Foster, a second year graduate student in archaeology at Western Michigan University, is searching for a thesis topic in African-American archaeology. She has been a student of Warren Perry, who has now left Western Michigan University. Ms. Foster states, "I am interested in power relations and resistance, particularly from the perspective of gender differences, and how this is manifested in art and craft, as well as in the use of botanicals. But I am open to other areas of investigation as well, as far as graduate research possiblilities, and am very interested in what is being done throughout the field, and how I can make a contribution to it." Those with some original research to be conducted should contact Ms. Foster at 2845-B South Burdick St., Kalamazoo, Michigan 49001, (616) 384-1059. Mount Vernon has a large water screened artifact collection from the kitchen midden which contains a large amount of slave-made and slave-used ceramics and other artifacts. This material needs to be cataloged and ultimately compared with the material from the slave quarters. This is a large and possibly long-term project that has the potential for more than one thesis. Interested students should contact Dennis Poque or Esther White at Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia 22121, (708) 780-2000. Please remember to submit your requests for research topics or for research assistance to the Thesis Corner. The research you save may be your own.


Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800. Leland Ferguson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1992.

Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. William D. Piersen, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1988.

A Review

Submitted by Rhett S. Jones, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in American, Brown University

The silliest argument ever advanced by (some white) historians, put forth with the utmost seriousness before the 1960s, was that black Americans had no history. This common sense and anthropological absurdity -- How could a people have no history -- rested on the narrow practice of history which assumed that without a large body of documents for historians to interpret, a people had not history. African Americans, historians argued, had left no written records, and therefore they had no history, or at least none which profession scholars could explore. But when the historical profession went looking for documents in the late 1960s they found far more than they could handle. Most of these were, however, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The number of eighteenth century documents by Afro-Americans remains small, but as the works of Ferguson and Piersen make clear it is possible to examine eighteenth-century black American history by using the techniques of the archaeologist and the folklorist. Piersen (p x) turned to folklore to uncover this past because, "For too long the black men and women of history have been encased in the passive voice of what was done to them, while their own vision of their lives remained hidden." Ferguson (p xxxiv) believes that archaeology can help to understand early Afro-Americans, but only if it breaks "away from the power of commonly held and subtly racist views of history to find important truths about the past." Piersen and Ferguson are each clear about their goals. Piersen sets out to provide a window on the evolution of black life and culture in New England and to compare it to that of the larger corpus of scholarship on blacks in the South. Ferguson examines the beginning of African-American culture and how archaeology provides insight into it. Both succeed.

They are successful first because each understands the methodological limits of his discipline. According to Piersen (p x), "No matter what [folklore] sources we use, our knowledge of black life in the eighteenth century too often derives from white observers unfamiliar with, and indeed uninterested in , the African population." According to Ferguson (p 118), "So far, archaeology has been of little value in expanding our knowledge of African-American resistance."

Second, they are successful because in an era when there is much talk about multi-disciplinary and comparative approaches to the study of the black past, Ferguson and Piersen do not just talk, but draw on other research techniques in their analyses. Both make good use of the documents traditionally used by the historian to complement and lend insight into their data. Each believes comparing black experiences in various parts of the eighteenth-century Americas helps to better understand the Afro-American past. Ferguson (p 58) writes that, "knowledge of African-American lifeways in the Tidewater region may be significantly expanded by excavating the camps and villages of the maroons," and comparing them to slave villages. In this way, he argues, it may be possible to disentangle the complex intermingling of black, white and red cultures in the colonial Americas. Throughout his book, but especially in Part 4, Piersen places black Yankee culture in the context of other eighteenth-century Afro-American cultures, demonstrating that knowledge of these cultures lends insight into black New England.

Despite their different approaches, the archaeologist and the folklorist reach similar conclusions. Ferguson (p 120) finds that while slaves "may not have overtly resisted their enslavement on a day-to-day basis, most . . . ignored the European American ideology that rationalized their enslavement." Piersen (p 160) concludes, "In their religious beliefs . . . in their work habits and crafts . . . black New Englanders remained their own people -- no longer Africans, but sure not second-class Europeans either." Ferguson and Piersen agree on the early emergence of a strong, independent and self-conscious black American culture distinct and different from that constructed by white Americans.

The silliest argument ever advanced by (some) black scholars, put forth with the utmost seriousness during the 1960s, was that whites could not do, nor could they understand, black history. Ferguson and Piersen are both white and their work clearly enhances our understanding of the crucial period when Africans were becoming African Americans.


From The Editor:

I would like to apologize for any misunderstandings about who had "1994" and who had "unpaid" on their last Newsletter. Those of you who had paid for 1993 and 1994 had "1994." Those of you who had paid for 1993, even if you paid in December (and received all 1993 back issues), had "unpaid." The last issue cost well over $100 just for postage. The few who had paid their $5.00 ended up paying for the many who had not. At that rate I would not have been able to mail out this issue.

I apparently did not explain this very well in the last issue. With my unsophisticated accounting abilities, I cannot keep track of part years, and have opted to keep everyone on a calendar year. New subscribers will get back issues of the current year to bring them up to speed.

Tom Wheaton

To the Editor:

Although I listened to a similar discussion at the SHA meetings in Richmond several years ago, I was very disappointed to read of the protests concerning the University of Virginia project. Talk about being ethnocentric! Does this mean that only Euro- Americans can excavate Euro-American sites and only Native Americans can excavate Native American sites? What about women's, or men's, or Polish-American, or Italian-American, or Hispanic, or Irish-American, or Jewish sites? Where are the politically correct experts for those sites?

We all have some ethnic or religious roots in this country. That's why it is considered to be a melting pot. Further, the large majority of us are not purely one group or another. Even African Americans frequently have Euro-American or Native American ancestors. Where do you draw the line?

Let's get beyond the fact that there is a shortage of minority archaeologists, an unfortunate but true situation. It seems to me that several factors are important here:

  • 1. We are supposed to be trained anthropologists, observers of culture. I always understood that to mean that we were supposed to be objective outside observers who recorded what we saw, rather than becoming a part of the culture under study. This is supposed to give us a perspective different from those who are part of the culture and perhaps allow us to understand the interrelationships within the culture by standing apart from those relationships.
  • 2. African Americans are no more a part of the past African-American culture than I am of the past Euro-American culture. What does a 25-year old urban northern African American really know about the 19th century rural African-American south other than what he or she has been told or read? All I know about my families' rural 18th-century roots is what I've been told and read; it is certainly not part of my life experience. Yes, it may be part of their tradition, but tradition and culture are not the same.
  • 3. As I somewhat facetiously pointed out in the first paragraph, we are all (including African Americans) studying the remains of cultures to which we probably have limited ethnic, gender, or religious ties. If we don't do it, who will? And does this mean African-American archaeologists should be prevented from studying the Euro-American component of African-American sites?
  • 4. I would also note that in terms of historic sites in this country, there is probably no such thing as an ethnically pure site. Certainly the African-American component of a plantation, while it may have functioned as a separate world and reflect Africanisms, was also influenced by and in turn influenced the world of the owner. An urban free African-American site in the north was also part of the community or region in which it was located, and as such was influenced by and in turn influenced that region -- which was probably predominantly some other ethnic group. African-American sites here in Florida were almost certainly influenced by the Seminoles or the Spaniards or the British or the Americans. None of us operate in a vacuum.
  • 5. Yes, yes, yes!! It is extremely important to get input from the cultural groups which produced a site -- if such input is available and moreover, reliable. All of us know the pitfalls in oral traditions, but that does not lessen the potential contribution of such traditions to understanding a site. And yes, again, these cultural groups should have a voice in the ultimate curation of materials and management of the site. But perhaps it should be in terms of disposition by a group which can demonstrate a legitimate relationship to the site beyond saying it's part of my heritage. In reality sites are part of everyone's heritage.

Today when so many sites are threatened by the increase in development, it seems more important than ever to pull together to salvage the data and tell the story than it is to squabble over who should be in charge. I realize part of the problem stems from the early errors in the New York burial ground mess, but can't we get beyond that to the real goal -- understanding all of the cultures of the past? We all have something to contribute and we all have a stake in the results. Do we really need to be establishing separate special interest groups? Shouldn't we try to work together to address our common interests?

Lucy B. Wayne, Ph.D., SouthArc, Inc.

Recently I joined the HistArch listserv on the Internet and invited input for the Newsletter. I noted in my introductory message that the last Newsletter covered several topics, including whether non-African Americans should excavate African-American sites. The response was immediate (I had four or five responses within two hours). For those of you not familiar with the Internet or listservs, I am including a few of the shorter responses. These can be a little disjointed since after the first response or two people start responding to each other, and the discussion takes on a life of its own. The responses below may be a little hard to follow as a result. To subscribe to HistArch send a message with "SUBSCRIBE to HistArch" in it to "". -- Editor.

As a short reply to the question of whether or not non-African Americans can or presumably should conduct archaeology on Afro-American sites, a fundamental question that underlies your question is should the pursuit of knowledge be dependent on the researcher's ethnicity and/or abilities?

Marc Kodack, Corps of Engineers

Maybe the colour of one's skin does not make someone more insightful as far as the interpretation of a site is concerned. However, someone who has been brought up in the United States with darker skin has felt the prejudice inflicted upon him/her which has developed over the past centuries. Someone who hears stories from grandparents about the horrors inflicted on their ancestors will have a different view point than those of us who haven't. This is not just a matter of skin colour, it is a matter of conditioning and social standards which are ingrained into the American psyche whether anyone wants to admit to it or not. Granted, an education is important, but the lack of one does not mean someone can't have an opinion and an important input. Keep your options open.

Sandra Sauer, Simon Fraser University

. . . To shut someone out of a site simply because they are not of the persuasion of those being excavated, is in itself shutting out a perspective that may shed light on the subject. But I would offer this: It would be improper to excavate such a sight without the exhausting input from those who could offer a closer view of the sight being excavated.

An example:
While at a field school in Annapolis, we excavated the home of a freed slave (it is now known as the Maynard-Burgess house). The excavators included only one African-American. In my opinion, this dig suffered because of that; at times I felt I was operating in a vacuum, unable to confidently offer an opinion. However, that experience opened up my world enough that I began to read much more widely in that field.

I guess what I am saying is that to shut out any view, is to risk the possibility of shutting out an important view . . .

John Buckler, University of Maryland

Electronic version compiled by Thomas R. Wheaton, New South Associates, Inc.

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