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Levi Jordan

Ken Brown Interview

On the Curer's Cabin - how the interpretations developed

with pictures below

Kettle bases found in this cabin area, discussed below.

Questions or Comments?
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CAROL: Let me move to something else if I could – one of the things I wanted to do today was to get a first person account of how your thought process worked when you were working through the interpretation of the curer’s cabin. How did you first start getting a glimmer that there was something really kind of interesting there?

KEN: Well, the glimmer that there was something interesting there was the minute we found it!

CAROL: When you found the curer’s kit?

KEN: When we, early in the project, put the unit in and turned up what is now interpreted as the conjurer’s kit. Initially we found the large kettle base. It was when the two kettle bases were found underneath it, along with the chalk, and the realization that the sides of the kettles were not present that I thought, gee, this is a little strange. I thought that if those kettles, especially the two underneath the big one – I mean if they were just stacking kettles, why would the smallest one be on the bottom? Which is what we found. Normally, to stack things, you would stack one inside the other to save space. I mean we’re talking about a cabin that was 15’ x 15’ on its interior. Also, we didn’t have the kettle sides. And that was the thing that stuck out in the archaeological record itself. They were stacked, but they were stacked as bases. They weren’t stacked as kettles. And the question then became – why?

Kettle bases and pieces of chalk

Then, there was the chalk – the chalk being tucked inside between a couple of the kettles – that also suggested that the sides weren’t present. I mean, if we had pieces of pots falling out all over the place – fine. Then they could have just been some weird stacked pots. If we had pieces of sides anywhere – but the sides simply weren’t there. And then the issue became one of – do the sides of kettles rot or disintegrate faster than the bases? And I could conceive of no reason why that would be the case, so then I was left with a variety of things, primarily the kettle bases and the chalk.

Now the chalk didn’t bother me too much, at first. But there were also some little bits and pieces of clay. We had a student in this department do a master’s thesis on how clay is sometimes used as a medicine by some African-American healers, and this is what then made me turn to the ethnographic record.

What I had to do, I felt, was go to ethnographic records and look at some sort of combination of some of these elements. When we then found the two bird skulls (and everything else) this tended to confirm what I had already found. It may be an accident (or it may not) that Flash of the Spirit [by Robert Ferris Thompson] was something I was reading at the time. And I realized, especially with Thompson citation of Bascom’s (46) description of a Caribbean curing ceremony with the kettle bases and the chalk , that I was looking at something that was potentially a curer’s cabin. At some point during that period we found all those nails, and the doll [insert image of doll] and a variety of other things found very near by. Also, during this period I happened to be at the Museum of Fine Arts...and they had some stuff from Oceania, and some African stuff, so I went through that display. When I went through I noticed that they had several nkisi in there, which had all of the earmarks of that pile of nails we found, and everything else. And so then I went through several texts on that – on nkisi and the like.

Here is a picture of the Nkisi that Ken saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. The small basket at the right foot of the image contains pebbles. The plate over the "stomach" area of the image has, behind it, a small effigy of a human being. The figure is "stuck" all over with nails and odd-shaped pieces of metal. At the Jordan Plantation, in one area of the area identified as the curer's cabin, the following things were found: a large number of nail and metal pieces, small polished pebbles, and a small porcelain doll.

Here is the doll that was found.

So it was a combination of the strangeness of the archaeological record, and just going through and trying to look at and eliminate certain possibilities, using ideas from various ethnographic records. But I was using the ethnographic record to say, all right, if this is a curer's kit of whatever, then what else should I find? Chalk and bases of kettles do not necessarily point to a curer’s cabin. There would have to be some other things.

And we started to find many other things in the ethnographic records, once we started to look at everything. We’ve got the cut glass (which are actually mirrors). We’ve got the pebbles. We’ve got the association in many African groups, particularly in the Kongo area – associations between birds and conjurers. We have these bird skulls and bird bone in the immediate vicinity. There were a whole variety of things which led to that interpretation. When we finally hit the medicine bottles (and the thermometer, which was actually found later on in the lab), I knew I had a curer's cabin.

Actually, that thermometer is an example of what gets me about dirt archaeologists who hate the lab – the thermometer was noticed while work was being done in the lab. It was not brought to my attention in the field. The excavator had put, in the notes, that the thermometer pieces were "little dirty glass tubes". When they came in to be catalogued, they were then catalogued as "hollow glass tubes with writing" – I mean, you look at it, it is definitely a thermometer!

Here is the thermometer fragment that was found.

Anyway the medicine bottles and the thermometer were kind of telling me where in the ethnographic record of Africa one might want to look for similarities in terms of the other materials.

CAROL: What other sources then? Did you go to – you had been reading Farris Thompson but were you also looking at other ethnographies?

KEN: Well, Thompson (16) cites Bascom (46) , for example, for the Caribbean. I went directly to that source to look at what he was talking about…and I went to other primary sources. I didn't just rely on Thompson, although it got me going in the right direction.

If you look at the African sources, you have to be struck with how elaborate the objects used are [the divination trays, for example], but the important thing is that they use some kind of plates or trays, they use chalk or they use ash (which a whitish powder). The kinds of things that are described in these various accounts, we have all of in the archaeology record at the Jordan plantation. From original as well as secondary sources.

[at some point we will insert a picture of divination tray from Thompson's book]

So I finally put all of that together in terms of the cosmogram (which as you know, we found a lot later).[a map of the cosmogram as it was found in the ground is below]. The cosmogram was something that grew out of Kris [Brown] telling me that she wanted the entire curer's cabin excavated – which I didn’t want to do at the time – though it did make sense. I finally determined that probably she was right – and it was in the unit that she had wanted to excavate that the coins were found. The first thing had been the curer's kit, of course, several years ago.

The third thing came up when we were finishing up the unit along what looks like an interior sort of hallway wall, because Kris [Brown] was concerned that we still hadn't found a doorway. So I thought, all right, let’s put another [excavation unit] in – let’s actually put in two or three units! That should show the top of the wall, which we've been able to find in every cabin, from the second unit we ever excavated the site. What I was hoping was that we could find someplace where the door frame could have been set in. I wasn’t really looking for anything connected with ritual but that’s when we quickly hit the kettles placed inside one another, wrapped in chain – what I am now interpreting as an amula.

The kettle bases buried in the ground are in the upper right hand part of this photo.

CAROL: Amula. I’ve not heard you use that term before. What is it?

KEN: That’s the feature that Whitney [Whitney Battle, an archaeologist colleague] noticed when we were in Corpus [at the SHA meetings] – she told me her grandmother had been a Yoruba, and had one of those in her house. You see this described in Thompson's book [Flash of the Spirit, 16]. It’s usually – well, all of the components, or most of the components, are metal. It’s utilized to help defend and ward off evil and defend the interior of a space. It usually includes objects that represent oppression as well as protection/aggression. Such as guns, in the one that Thompson shows in his book from New York City in the 1940’s. But it's usually comprised of kettles, chains, guns, a lot of iron. This is all iron or metal. Guns. In our case, it happens to be represented by a bayonet. A variety of things.

[at some point we hope to insert picture of an Amula from Flash of the Spirit]

This is a section from the John Biggers painting, "Shotgun", pictured in full in The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In the painting, five women are pictured standing on their front porches. There is a kettle next to each woman. Here is a passage from a essay in this book by Robert Farris Thompson:

"I have seen such a pot lashed with iron chains to the front porch of a black grandmother in Austin, Texas, as a reliquary of her mother's mother, on the one hand, and as a mystic filter for evil on the other. For it is believed, in Kongo and in black America, that a basket or pot by the door is a catch for evil at a critical space."

CAROL: How about the shell? Is there ash and shell?

KEN: There’s ash in the bottom kettle. There’s dirt in the top kettle. There may have been some ash in it but it was open and then it had a broken kettle, the base of which was in another unit. I had always hoped that the base would be one of the ones we got out of the conjurer’s kit but it isn’t. But the kettle was broken across the top and there we have the sides as well, so there are three kettles involved. A lot of chain, plow parts, horse shoes, a tremendous amount of metal. And I looked at that, and I had been looking at Leland Ferguson’s stuff on cosmograms in his book "Uncommon Ground" (21) – we already had the cosmogram on the brick from a long time earlier.

This is a brick found in the "Political Leader's Cabin", with a portion of a cosmogram inscribed upon it.

KEN: So we had the cosmogram on the brick from the so-called "political leader’s cabin". So cosmograms were not foreign to me, but I realized that the symbology of the cosmogram – on three "sides" of it – fit very neatly between Africa and what we were finding in the ground in terms of the east side, north and west. In fact, they were cardinal directions from one another, which then led me to say, all right, if this is a cosmogram and if it was intended as such, then there should be something on the south connected with what we call "death" and the other world. If so, it had to be in the hearth of the cabin which we had not excavated.

CAROL: And you didn’t typically excavate hearths?

KEN: No, we cleared them off the top, so we would know that it was the hearth and we would know the boundaries of it, but we did not dig inside of them. I could conceive of no reason to do so. Now, of course, I can.

So I set about saying, all right, one test of whether or not this is a cosmogram would be that we would have to have something on the south. And the symbology connected with it should relate to death, the other world, et cetera. The hearth also is an interesting location for it in that, within the Kongo cosmograms, anyway, because the south is not only associated with the other world and death but with the height of everybody’s femaleness. And, here, it would be in a hearth. And there are some good reasons among the Gullah to associate them [hearths] with femaleness.

So I then set two students excavating the hearth (both of whom felt at the time that I was picking on them, because it was the only place that people were digging that year that wasn’t shady!). But inside the hearth, at the back wall next to the chimney, was a hole which had been dug AFTER the hearth had been built. And in the hole was burned shell, ash and large metal slags and that’s it. And it had a nice plaster base. And I personally am convinced there’s no question that it’s the southern part of a cosmogram.

CAROL: What about the metal? Why would that be tied to death – because of weaponry?

KEN: Because it’s burned metal. And the shell looks like it’s calcified. It may just be weathered shell but the ash – well, there’s a tremendous amount of ash.

CAROL: Not where you would necessarily expect it in a hearth anyway? It was a separate thing?

KEN: It was in a hole – the hearth itself was bricked over so this would have been below. It’s not ash falling in from above. It was a hole that was dug out. It was filled up with certain kinds of things. Shell and ash are associated with death and mourning. The metal could be something else about power, et cetera. But then it was capped off and the hearth was apparently re-established, so it’s not ash that was falling through from the fire. It was an intended deposit of ash. And it’s not our only intended deposit of ash on the plantation. [That's discussed later, in the section of the interview about the Praise House/Church].

What is interesting about it – well, it would be incorrect to refer to it as traditionally African. It isn’t. If that is an amula, and if that is a conjurer’s cabin and nkisi, then we have Kongo as well as Yoruba traditions in one area – which is exactly what one might expect in a reconstructed version of African beliefs, if you apply the Mintz and Price (47) approach to constructing cultures or reconstructing them after people came to this country. The date on the deposit cannot be before 1858.

CAROL: Because of the coins?

KEN: Because of the coins. There is a coin from 1858 – there are also coins from 1853, but that doesn't matter for dating the deposit. I suspect personally that the deposit does not predate at least some part of the war because there are also a couple of Confederate military buttons, and the bayonet is of English design (which would have been imported for the Confederacy) so it may not even predate the end of the war. So, the curer may have lived in another cabin or may have just buried these elements of the cosmogram once it became her or his cabin. I also do, by the way, think it’s a her.

CAROL: Why do you think it was a woman? And do you have any idea of who it might be?

KEN: Because the curer's kit is in the eastern portion of the cosmogram. That’s the portion which symbolizes our birth into this world. If this person was a conjurer/mid-wife, the east makes a great deal of sense as to where you would store it in a cosmogram. Because that’s the passage into this world. That’s your birth.

Anyway, that’s how I would interpret that. Whether it’s accurate or not remains to be seen, or maybe we'll never know. But I do believe there was probably a mid-wife on the plantation. There is a spoon handle with certain initials stamped on it that is associated with this cabin (there are two of them on the site, as a matter of fact – one is in what we think was the church, interestingly enough) [this refers to the Praise House/Church area, which will be discussed in a later version of this web site, although a preliminary discussion is included in this interview]. But the initials on this handle could be those of a person who was listed in the 1880 Census – and the only person we know on the plantation with those initials was a female. That person, in the 1870 Census, had a husband and two kids. In this cabin, there was also a small chest, for which we have most of the hardware. Inside of this were toys for a male and for a female, and this woman had a boy and a girl. But neither the husband nor the kids show up in the 1880 Census. She is listed, but listed as a widow at that point.

CAROL: Could we put her name on the web site?

KEN: Not until you get permission from her descendants! [which I hope to do soon!]. It would be nice to talk to the descendants to see if they know whether they know if she was a mid-wife. She married a man who is apparently not living there by the time of the 1880 census. We have that marriage record.

This drawing in the paragraph above is described below. From Brown 1995 (2).

"The first of these deposits [1, to the left] discovered was the curer’s/magician’s kit, found in the south-eastern corner of the cabin. Immediately adjacent to this kit, but likely placed below the floorboards of the cabin [Ken Brown] discovered an extremely large quantity of nails, spikes, real and ‘fake’ knife blades, and small porcelain dolls, which appear to be all that remains of a wooden Nkisi.

"The second deposit [2, to the left] discovered contained seven coins. This set of coins consisted of four quarters, two dimes and a half-dime…The coins had been tightly wrapped together inside a coarsely woven cloth object…the coins were placed so that they were ‘standing’ in a nearly vertical fashion on their sides. They faced north-south. The coins were also carefully arranged such that the perforated half-dime was on the outside facing south, then came two of the quarters (both dated 1853) then an 1853 dime, then the other two coins (both dated 1858).

"The third deposit [three, to the left] discovered consisted of a wide variety of objects within and surrounding two complete cast iron kettles. The kettles had been placed below the floorboards immediately inside the cabin’s door. The kettles had been positioned one inside the other with a few small, metal, ocean shell, glass, and bone fragments placed inside the upper kettle….a number of objects were then placed around, or in two lines radiating out from these kettles. Toward the northeast were two small Confederate military buttons, several large bones, metal chain links, and a bayonet. Toward the southeast were several more lengths of metal chain, numerous large metal objects (including a hinge, spike, bolt and a piece of a plow), several ocean shells, a quartz crystal, glass fragments, and two additional Confederate military buttons.

"The fourth deposit [four, to the left] discovered was found placed into a hearth of the cabin. Sometime after the construction of the hearth, the bricks at the back of the hearth, below the chimney, were removed and a hole was excavated into the fill and dirt below this portion of the hearth. A clay plaster surface was put over the bottom of the hole, which was then covered with ash, broken up and heavily burned ocean shell…and a few nails" (Brown 1994: 111-114).

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