Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Secret Religion of Slaves Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Jessica E. Saraceni

[image] White artifacts from a Slayton House cache may symbolize the underworld. (Laura Galke) [LARGER IMAGE, 19K]

Five caches of artifacts have been found in a house in the historic district of Annapolis, providing evidence of the secret religious life of enslaved African Americans. Discovered in Slayton House, built in the 1770s and now owned by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, the caches include pierced coins, broken glass, white buttons, black beads, common pins, a brass ring, and pieces of bone. "We studied the excavation reports of 30 sites in Maryland and Virginia where slaves lived," says Mark Leone, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland at College Park. "At about half of those sites, caches of artifacts have been found in the northeast corners of workrooms, under hearths, or in root cellars, suggesting a pattern of burying ritual objects." That information led Leone to predict where similar caches might be found in Slayton House. Subsequent excavations uncovered three caches in workrooms and two beneath a hearth. "We now know definitively that slaves practiced religious rituals," adds Leone, "but, just as important, we know where to go to look for the proof."

Frederick Lamp, curator of African Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, examined similar caches from Charles Carroll House, also in historic Annapolis. He says that their positions in northeast corners and under hearths suggest a consistent, ritual use of the objects. He notes that white stones were used in shrines in West Africa to venerate ancestors, who were thought to protect the community. The artifacts from Carroll and Slayton houses may have been similar offerings.

Gladys-Marie Fry, a professor of English and folklore at the University of Maryland at College Park, has studied slaves' autobiographies and life histories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She agrees that the objects reflect concerns for safety. Protection from the master or overseer, healing or "secret doctoring" (making teas, salves, and amulets to treat injury and disease), and divination could have been the intended purposes of the cached objects. The practice of burying ritual items had died out by the beginning of the twentieth century, she adds.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America