Archeologists digging on the centuries-old plantation where abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass was once a slave have come across some fascinating objects that add real depth to the American understanding of culture in bondage.
Beneath a greenhouse on the grounds of the Wye House Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a team from the University of Maryland, College Park, has discovered spiritual talismans suggesting that slaves both lived in the greenhouse and maintained deeply rooted African religious traditions there, even while probably being forced to practice Christianity.
Digging below a north-facing rear room, the archeologists discovered things like dishware and buttons, quotidian objects found in practically every home. But far more interesting was what they found beneath the doorstep leading into the room: “two projectile points and a coin.” According to the researchers, these were important objects in the African tradition of monitoring spirits.
"African-American religion in the form of African traditions gave this building a second identity, one that was not described or not known by Douglass," said Mark Leone, the team’s leader. “There was a whole set of concepts, ideas, and practices that kept the community whole. That isn't something that could be destroyed through brutality."
Through analyzing grains of fossilized pollen, the archeologists were also able to ascertain that, though they were subjected to horrible living conditions, the slaves at Wye House were smart and resourceful enough to experiment with agriculture, cultivating everything from medicinal herbs to broccoli and citrus trees.
"The kind of labor it took to run these greenhouses really was constant and very specialized," said Christa Beranek, an archeologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "As people working in greenhouses gained information on how to care for these plants and build specific structures, they learned what worked and what didn't. The body of specialized knowledge they were amassing might then get shared orally."
Image: Courtesy of William Bodenstein, Maryland Historic Society