African Relics in Old Annapolis the Discovery of Religious Artifacts in a Mansion Basement Shows the Persistence of African Culture before the Civil War

By Michael Richards, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

African Relics in Old Annapolis the Discovery of Religious Artifacts in a Mansion Basement Shows the Persistence of African Culture before the Civil War


Michael Richards, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AFRICA is right here in our backyards," proclaimed Barbara Jackson after looking over a display case full of recently unearthed archaeological artifacts on display at Shiplap House, the local historical museum in Maryland's state capital of Annapolis.

Ms. Jackson is acting director of the state's official center for African-American heritage, the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

To the untutored, the artifacts might seem like nothing more than an assortment of odds and ends: polished stones, rock crystals, disks made from animal bones, a pottery bowl, and eggshell fragments. But to the trained eye, they represent a startling discovery.

"We came to understand very quickly that these were objects or remains related to West African religious practices," notes Mark Leone, an archaeologist at the University of Maryland who has spent the last 10 years digging up chunks of Annapolis's past.

The discovery came this summer while Mr. Leone's team was working in the basement of an 18th-century mansion - a space in which slaves would likely have lived or worked. The 18th-century owner was Charles Carroll, a leading citizen of Maryland, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a man who not only owned hundreds of slaves, but was also an active player in the slave trade.

The traditional religious beliefs expressed in these artifacts "were either brought over by Carroll's slaves directly from West Africa or passed on to a successor generation born in America," Leone says.

"Because we found these things in such a tight concentration - in a niche in a subbasement crawl space - we believe they were placed there intentionally and never moved again," says George Logan, who supervises the archaeology in Annapolis program.

The artifacts appear linked to traditions found in what is now known as Sierra Leone, a West African country from which many slaves were taken.

The pottery bowl that is the largest single object among the artifacts appears to be a key to unlocking the mystery of these objects. Decorated with lines crossed in the form of an asterisk, it is reminiscent "of bowls commemorating the death of a young man during initiation rites," notes Frederick Lamp, the curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The deceased "is represented by an overturned bowl," Mr. Lamp continues, "and on the bottom are scratched cross-marks - indicating that his life has been more or less X-ed out. …

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