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Levi Jordan Plantation

"African Retentions and Symbolism"

by Kenneth L. Brown and Doreen C. Cooper

Excerpted from "Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community" (4)

See also excerpts from Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit, a secondary source which will give you an idea of the sorts of ethnographic sources which have informed these archaeological interpretations.

Some disagree with the use of the term "retentions". Indeed, it isn't used as much as it was when this paper was published in 1990. What do you think? Let us know with a feedback form.

"One of the interesting aspects of the data so far generated concerns the manipulation of African-derived objects and symbols. While all of the cabins thus far tested have yielded a number of drilled shell artifacts, two cabins had occupants who manipulated a wider variety of African and European-America symbols. Both of these cabin’s occupants were extremely important in the functioning of the community of slaves and tenants. Cabin II-B-3/4 was occupied by an individual who probably functioned in a social control capacity. This hypothesis is supported by the discovery of a shackle chain bricked into the west wall of Cabin II-B-3, a high number of weapon-related artifacts, as well as a high number of African and European-American status items, e.g., carved bone, drilled shells, store-bought jewelry, and coins of high denomination. Most of these items were recovered from the abandonment level of II-B-3/4, while the occupational deposits of II-B-3 contained a very low frequency of artifacts, possibly indicating that II-B-3 was utilized as a "jail" for some portion of its use, later becoming part of a larger, two-room cabin.

The community-wide function of another cabin’s occupants provides another important test of "African" retentions through the differential manipulation of European-American culture. This cabin was occupied by a traditional healer/magician. Similar to the political leader’s cabin (II-B-3/4), the evidence here supports the hypothesis that the healer/magician occupied a single cabin during slavery and expanded it into two rooms sometime after 1865. The added space served as an "office" or ritual room. A vase majority of the artifacts that formed part of the healer’s paraphernalia date to the rapid abandonment of the cabin. For whatever reasons, the artifacts remained behind and in a condition fairly similar to the way they were left.

The main data came from a restricted area of a single cabin. Of primary importance here are five cast-iron kettle bases, several pieces of utilized chalk, fragments of a small scale, bird skulls, an animals paw, medicine bottles, bullet casings put together to form a sealed tube, ocean shells, small doll parts, a high frequency of nails and spikes, several tablespoons, metal knives – both real and "fake", a cheroot projectile point, and two cheroot scrapers. The so-called "fake" knives are long pieces of metal made in the general shape of a knife and have a wedge-shaped cross-section. In most cases, these fake knives have an uneven "cutting edge." These objects probably all relate to the ritual "tool kit" of a traditional West African and African-American healer/magician. Clearly, a very large percentage of these artifacts would have functioned in other activities – and likely did at various points in their use-lives. In fact, in a number of currently employed artifact cataloguing schemes, these artifacts would be subsumed in household and architectural categories and their significance in ritual activities missed. When these artifacts are taken together in an explicit test of the healer/magician model, however, this pattern of co-occurrence becomes significant in the study of African retentions in an African-American rural farming community.

Research conducted by other scholars (Bascom 1952; Janzen and MacGaffey 1974; Thompson 1983; Janzen 1986) can be employed to construct a behavioral analogy which can be tested against the data from the healer/magician’s cabin. For example, William Bascom (1952) has demonstrated that in Cuba many of the divination rituals and equipment found within the modern black and creole populations originated in West Africa. Equipment regularly employed in these ritual activities included, among other items, wooden or metal trays, white chalk or powder, metal staffs, and bird symbolism. The trays and chalk or white powder were often used together. The powder/chalk was spread across the surface of the tray with the divination proceeding with the marking of symbols into the powder on the surface of the tray. The chalk could also be used to make the symbols not only on the tray but on other surfaces as well. Bascom further notes the close association of divination and healing knowledge and ritual with birds and bird symbolism in both Africa and the New World, hollow metal staffs or smaller cylindrical metal objects are important symbols of the healer/magician’s power. Finally, Robert Farris Thompson (1983:110) notes that following description of the beginning of a charm ritual: "On the island of Cuba, when Kongo ritual leaders wish to make the important Zarabanda charm…they began by tracing, in white chalk, a cruciform pattern at the bottom of an iron kettle."

These behavioral descriptions clearly help to tie a number of the artifacts discovered in the archaeological record of the Jordan Plantation into a "functional set". This functional set concerned both curing and magic ritual and ritual objects. However, the ritual objects are not the elaborate and symbolically decorated items generally noted within the ethnographic descriptions. In the case of the Jordan Plantation artifacts, they are simply adaptations of existing European-American material culture. Given the differences in the cultural settings described, e.g., a free community composed of and controlled by its black or creole inhabitants versus a community of free blacks within a larger community controlled by whites in a generally antagonistic setting, one might predict some simplification of the material culture involved. Slave and tenant communities might not be expected to produce the highly decorated artifacts given their status and the need to "go underground" in order to carry out these traditional practices. Thus, the symbolic meanings of the items would be clear within the context of the black community, and generally learned orally, rather than being expressed openly on the objects. If members of the dominant society happened to discover the objects, the general form and even the association might not be understood by the "foreign" discoverer. Thus, the lack of symbolic expression on the artifacts and their general "domestic" nature would aid in keeping the likelihood of discovery low, further helping to keep the behavior operating within the adapting community of African-Americans."

Other artifacts associated with ritual objects and a nearby plastered area of the cabin’s floor may well be all that remains within the archaeological record of another item within this general ritual tool kit – the anthropomorphic wooden figures called Nkisi. As John Janzen and Reinhild Janzen (1988:38) note, such figures are "power objects" in a community and/or public context. They also serve in the treatment of sickness, the protection of individuals and communities, and for the initiation of novices into the ritual order common to the Nkisi. These authors also state that usually when these figures are employed in ritual activities, then:

At this time they are combined with other objects or ritually treated to achieve a particular end. Nails or wedges driven into the wooden figure represent the oaths that bind the word of the spell. "Injuring" the nkisi, thus provoking it, compels it to act in the desired manner (Janzen and Janzen 1988:38)."

While the actual carved object is missing archaeologically, a variety of artifacts in very close associations with ritual objects, items employed in the production of charms and curing, do appear. Within an 8-sq.-ft. area around the plastered surface were recovered 11 spikes approximately 254 nails, at least 2 broken knife blades, a number of wedge-shaped metal pieces, and a large number of other metal objects. The amount of metal from this small portion of the unit is from 12 to 15 times the average amount of metal from a similar-sized area in the quarters. Again, these artifacts might have had different functions and uses at some point in their history, but within the testing of a nonhistorically documented and non-European-American behavioral model, they help to support the hypothesis that they were ultimately used in an African or African-American ritual context. By simply placing these artifacts into European-American behavioral sets – e.g., culinary, gustatory, architectural sets – as is common in historical archaeology, their importance in the definition and reconstruction of African and African-American behavior would be totally lost. A vase majority of these items are typical of those found within the average plantation owner’s household, a fact which may have allowed some of the behavioral patterns to have survived within the context of the plantation community."

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