University of Maryland archaeologists have found what they believe to be one of the earliest examples of the spiritual traditions brought to North America by African slaves. The bundle of sand and clay, packed with metal bits and a stone ax, is believed to be about 300 years old.
University of Maryland anthropologist Mark Leone said the object appears to be an example of African religious practices and not a later mix of African and American practices. The discovery also shows “an unexpected level of public toleration” of spiritual displays around 1700, said Leone, who directed the project.
The archaeologist noted other African spiritual items found in Annapolis are at least 50 years younger and believed to have been used in secret while the object found in April is believed to have been openly displayed in front of a home.
Annapolis’ newspaper at the time, The Maryland Gazette, was filled with accounts of English magic and witchcraft, so African and English spirit practices may have also been tolerated, the archaeologist said.
“English witchcraft in this period existed openly in public and was tolerated,” Leone said in a statement. “It’s intriguing to speculate how English and African spirit beliefs may have interacted and borrowed from each other.”
After 1750, references to witchcraft and magic disappeared from the newspaper, indicating the changing philosophy of the times, Leone said.
The archaeologists believe the bundle containing hundreds of pieces of lead shot, pins and nails was used to ward off spirits. The bundle went on display Tuesday at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which is devoted to African-American history and culture.
The bundle was believed to have been wrapped in cloth, leather or hide with the stone ax protruding from the top. Researchers believe the 10-inch tall bundle was placed in the gutter because running water was believed to carry spirits.
The dig was conducted before a project to lay utility cables in an area that was once part of the city’s early waterfront. The bundle was found four feet below street level in the city’s historic district, about 1,000 feet from the statehouse.
Leone said that after consulting with experts on West and Central-West African culture, he believes the bundle may have origins in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea among Yoruba or Mande speakers.
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