Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb
"Jim always kept that five-center piece round his neck with a string, and
said it was a charm the devil give to him with his own hands, and told him
he could cure anybody with it and fetch witches whenever he wanted to just
by saying something to it; but he never told what it was he said to it."--Huck Finn, Mark Twain
The discovery in Annapolis, Maryland of a deliberate deposit of coins,
buttons, beads, doll parts, scraps of fabric, a perfume bottle filled with
soil and a seed, seashells, a matchstick, and other relics under a brick
floor is changing the way archaeologists think about early African American
beliefs in the Chesapeake. The finds, identified during a salvage excavation
of the eighteenth-century Brice House (soon to be a conference center),
occupied a kitchen and laundry room below a slave and servant quarters.
Jessica Neuwirth, archaeologist with the Historic Annapolis Foundation, says
she had hoped to find ritual objects of slaves similar to those that have
emerged beneath the flooring at other local sites (see "Secret Religion of Slaves,"
November/December 1996). It soon became clear that secreted here were not
the eighteenth-century root bundles--symbols taken unaltered from an African
spiritual practice--that had turned up at similar sites. Instead, here was a
nineteenth-century mish-mash of artifacts, including coins (like the one Jim
wore in Huck Finn) and buttons dating to the Civil War and after, suggesting
the adoption of Hoodoo, a religion that fused African and American
influences. Scholars have argued that African culture could not persist in a
region like the Chesapeake, where contact between the black and white
communities was constant and black population density was not so high as
As archaeologists continued to dig, the shape of a cosmogram, a sacred
African form comprising a circle inscribed with a cross, began to emerge in
the arrangement of artifacts. The cosmogram would have delineated this as a
sacred, ritual space. Other finds were clustered around the doorway and
"Objects mark entrances, exits, chimneys--places spirits come and go, places people come and go," Neuwirth says. "It's a crossroads between this world and the other world; a temporary altar. If you're a fan of the Blues, then you know about going down to the crossroads."
Finds like those throughout Annapolis are familiar to excavators in the deep
south, but little reported beyond. "People would certainly find this stuff
if they were looking," Neuwirth insists. "If you look at site reports, finds
have been recorded, but archaeologists don't know what to do with it."
The artifacts have been taken to the University of Maryland lab and will eventually be displayed in Baltimore. Neuwirth says that removing the
artifacts was the most sensitive course of action. "Had we not dug this
material up, it would have been destroyed and lost forever. These materials
have a life--a useful living life as a bridge between this world and the
spirit world. Now that the practitioner is gone, whatever energy these
things had is done with."
© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America