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African Relics in Old Annapolis

The discovery of religious artifacts in a mansion basement shows the persistence of African culture before the Civil War

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." Pebbles - like the small polished stones found in the cache - are often placed on graves in Sierra Leone. In this same tradition, the world of the dead is represented by white, because it is devoid of color. Thus, Lamp says, it is not surprising that such things as eggshell fragments or bone disks would be present. Scholarly inquiries into these artifacts are only beginning. A comprehensive interpretation of them may not emerge for months. But the fact that such objects have been found at all is adding a new dimension to the debate over multiculturalism. By all accounts, the dominant American culture in 18th-century America viewed traditional African practices as primitive and pagan. Records show that Charles Carroll, who owned the mansion and, most likely, the slaves who left these objects behind, baptised some if not all his slaves "sometime after 1790," Leone says. The historic core of Annapolis is replete with examples of African-Americans either prodded to conform or actively trying to assimilate into the dominant Anglo-Saxon-based culture. The Banneker-Douglass Museum is housed in one of the oldest black churches in town. Its Victorian architecture and luminous stained glass attest to the influence of Europe. Previous archaeological finds have unearthed such symbols of the American melting pot as metal combs that, when heated, were used by African-Americans to straighten curly hair. In the face of this history, this new archaeological evidence shows that "despite all the pressures for turning slaves into pliant workers, there does survive something of their heritage," Leone says. "It was always something bad - Africa. It was always something hideous and uncouth. But now children need to see the African culture is as important as any other culture. We're proud of it and should be proud," says Barbara Jackson of the Banneker-Douglass Museum. These artifacts have become, for many people involved in the discovery and interpretation of them, both an affirmation of Africa's imprint on American culture and history and a testament to the persistence of memory that impels people to proclaim, in any way they can, the need to be themselves. "Africa is not far away," Jackson says. "It is just around the corner."

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