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Levi Jordan

Kristine N. Brown

Archaeology and Spirituality: The Conjurer/Midwife and the Praise House/Church at the Levi Jordan Plantation

by Kristine N. Brown, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Kenneth L. Brown, University of Houston

Presented at the 1998 meetings of the Society for Historical Archaeology.

NOTE: As with many papers presented orally at conferences, sometimes the references mentioned are actually compiled in list form after the conference. We will be including those reference lists as soon as we can.

See Maria Franklin's page on this web for her comments on this paper and the others delivered in this session.


Over the past decade the historical archaeological study of African Americans has undergone tremendous change in at least one research area--religion and spirituality. Certainly, the presence of religious belief and behavior among slaves and tenants had been well documented through historical research. However, prior to the late 1980s it remained an area that archaeologists have not been comfortable exploring. Religion, after all, represents ideas and beliefs that are not "apparent" within the artifacts themselves.

Unfortunately, for many of these studies, the methods of historical archaeology have not changed. With a few notable exceptions, in most studies individual artifacts have been employed to indicate of the ritual belief systems using untested ethnographic analogy, rather than the context of the artifacts. For example, artifact types such as blue glass beads, perforated silver coins, quartz crystals, and even the penis bones of raccoons have been defined as ritual items with ties to African belief systems. One recent publication in the journal Historical Archaeology summarizes this "ritual artifact" approach to the study of religion and spirituality. This publication presents little more than a laundry list of assumed ritual artifacts and their assumed religious and spiritual significance and does not discuss the broader spatial and temporal contexts in which the artifacts were found. Like much of the archaeological research on spirituality among African Americans, there are only assertions of what others have stated and have come to believe.

Research at the Jordan Plantation has been a long-term contextual archaeological and historical research project that has primarily focused on the slave and tenant community. Deposits discovered within two of the so-called cabins within this community are being interpreted as providing insight into the religious and spiritual lives of the residents of this community. These deposits include the Conjurer/Midwife’s Cabin and the Praise House/Church. This paper will briefly discuss these two deposits and their interpretation.

The Conjurer/Midwife’s Cabin (Cabin II-B-1):

The Conjurer/Midwife’s cabin is the northeast cabin in Block II of the slave and tenant quarters. This cabin has been discussed in two previous publications. It appears to be best known as a result of the discovery of the so-called Conjurer’s kit located in the southeast corner of the cabin in 1988. The contents of this often cited kit included artifacts such as cast iron kettle bases, chalk, at least one sealed tube made of brass bullet casings, medicine bottles, and a thermometer. Close by this deposit were water worn pebbles, mirror fragments, many square nails and spikes, several fake knife blades, a small doll, a concave metal disc, and several ocean shells. These have been interpreted as representing both the actual curing kit as well as the remains of a Nkisi similar to those found among the BiKongo peoples of West Africa. The Nkisi was employed as an integral part of the curing ritual among West African groups, but this represents its first interpreted presence in North America. Taken together, this full set of materials was utilized in the manipulation of the supernatural world for the benefit of the members of the community.

However, within this cabin there are at least four other ritual deposits, three of which, along with the conjurer’s kit, combine to form a cosmogram. These three deposits include a set of seven silver coins. This set includes 4 quarters, 2 dimes, and a half dime. The coins had been deposited tightly wrapped together by cloth. Little of the cloth remained, but what was left appears to be coarsely woven cotton. The coins may have been ordered in a particular way within the cloth before being placed into a small hole dug into the soil below the floor of the cabin. The set of coins was placed into the ground so that the coins were "standing" nearly vertically on their sides. They were oriented on a north-south axis. The perforated half dime (dated 1853) was on the outside facing south, then came three quarters (two dated 1853 and one dated 1858), then the two dimes (one dated 1853 and the other 1858), followed by the last quarter (dated 1858). Thus, only two years were represented among the dates of these seven coins.

On the west side of the cabin was another interesting type of Nkisi deposit. The artifacts of this feature had been intentionally placed in a small pit dug into the soil adjacent to the brick foundation and under what appears to have been the doorway into the cabin. This set of materials included a wide variety of artifacts, nearly all of which were made of cast iron. The primary focus of this feature was two cast iron kettles placed upright, one inside the other. A third, smaller kettle had been broken and the pieces of the walls had been placed on top of the other two kettles. The bottom of this kettle was found approximately five feet to the northeast. Before the two kettles were placed one inside the other, the bottom kettle had ash placed into it. This ash lens was the sealed by the upper kettle. The upper kettle contained a few objects of metal, ocean shells, glass, small bone fragments, and soil. Indeed, the kettle may have been filled simply by the accumulation of items falling through cracks in the floor boards. These kettles were wrapped around their circumference by a heavy chain.

Two "lines" of artifacts radiated out from these kettles. Toward the northeast were Confederate military buttons, large bone fragments, unperforated cockle shells, more chain, and a complete bayonet. Toward the southeast a number of large metal objects were placed along with 2 additional Confederate military buttons, a quartz crystal, perforated cockle shells. The large metal objects included a hinge, several spikes, a bolt, and a fragment of a plow. This feature likely formed a Nkisi that aided in ritually securing the protection of the cabin, its occupants, and the activities conducted inside from harm that might be caused by powerful elements from the outside world. However, this set of artifacts may not solely symbolize this transition. These artifacts may also represent an amula to Ogun, a Yoruba deity, similar to those noted from Cuba.

Another deposit was discovered after the previous three, and as a direct result of an archaeological test to discover a meaning for the others. That is, taken together, the previous three deposits represent the eastern, northern, and western points of a cosmogram, the BiKongo symbol for the cycle of life as well as an important curing symbol. The eastern point of the cosmogram is represented by the Conjurer’s kit which would be employed in helping to give and maintain life. The northern point on a cosmogram represents the height of one’s power in this world, and maleness. To the north the set of coins was located. The western point on the cosmogram represents the point of passage from this world to the next--the process of moving from life to death. The presence of the ash and the distribution of perforated and unperforated shells may support a symbolic view of this transition. Thus, it was felt that one possible test of the cosmogram hypothesis would be the discovery of an artifact feature forming the southern point which, on the cosmogram, represents the height of one’s power in the other world, and one’s femaleness.

During the excavation of the living area of the cabin around the hearth, no such feature was encountered. However, excavation within the hearth area did produce a deposit of artifacts that forms the southern point as predicted by the cosmogram model. Given the lens of soil and brick over this feature, this deposit was placed into the hearth sometime after completion of the fire place. The feature itself consisted of a hole dug into the soil supporting the hearth and chimney. Ash, burned ocean shell, and burned square nails and spikes were placed into this hole. The hole was then loosely filled and the hearth floor reconstructed over it. This represents the only feature placed into a hearth yet discovered on the plantation. At the risk of being considered "politically incorrect," in light of the traditional female association for the southern point on the cosmogram, it is interesting that it was placed within the hearth of the cabin. Certainly, however, placement within the hearth may have been the result of the shape of the cabin and the need to maintain cardinal directions while placing the points of the cosmogram. The importance of hearth and household will be noted later in yet another context.

Each of these 4 features within the Conjurer/Midwife’s Cabin support the interpretation of an African American behavioral and belief system--one that serves to control the outside world through the manipulation of the supernatural world. The full set of artifacts and contexts suggest that many of the basic ideas and rituals were of African origins. Very importantly, however, they show an interesting mix of materials from at least two West African cultural groups-- BiKongo and Yoruba. However, the patent medicine bottles and the thermometer demonstrate some adaptation of non-African ideas as well. That is, all of these elements support the hypothesis that the conjurer/midwife had sanctified the floor space of the cabin for its use within the ritual performance of curing, conjuring, and, possibly giving birth.

The Praise House/Church (Cabin I-A-1):

The northwest cabin in Block I has been identified as the Praise House/Church. The excavations conducted within this cabin began 3 field seasons ago, and have continued until very recently. Therefore, unlike the Conjurer/Midwife’s cabin, this research has not been previously reported.

Excavations were begun in this cabin as the planned final test for the abandonment of the quarters. At the time, it was decided that the testing of this cabin would provide information on 5 of the 6 cabins in Block I. Further, it had the potential to provide information on the earliest slave quarters on the plantation along with the brick manufacturing area that was found below this Block of cabins. The first 2 units excavated into the cabin yielded a surprisingly low frequency of artifacts. The artifacts present appeared identical to the normal sub-floor deposits found within the quarters area. However, the amount of this material was far lower than we had come to expect. Further, there was less variability in the artifacts present than was normal. Therefore, additional units were excavated in an attempt to more completely determine the nature of the deposits within this cabin.

These units revealed additional differences between the sub-floor deposits in this cabin and all of the other 16 cabins tested. These differences include: the reduction in artifact frequency and variability, the movement of the hearth, an increase in the size of the cabin, and several sub-floor features not previously observed in other cabins. As a result of the continued excavation of this cabin (literally until New Year’s Eve), artifact counts and distributions have not been completed. However, a few tentative and general comments can be made based upon the previously dug units. First, total artifact counts per unit within this cabin appear to be from one-quarter to one-third of the counts for other cabins. Second, this represents the only cabin in which the building material artifact class is, by far, the largest. Indeed, one artifact type--square nails--makes up close to 25% of the artifacts recovered. Third, artifact types that generally appear in high frequencies in other cabins, such as ceramics, cooking and eating utensils, bottle glass, bone, buttons, various personal items, and shell, are in very low frequency within this cabin. Thus, the artifact classes indicative of residential activities are the ones that exhibit the low frequency of occurrence. Other than a badly broken pocket knife, no tools were found within this cabin. Again, this is atypical of the artifact inventories of the other 16 cabins tested, in that it is the only cabin without tools. On this evidence, it is possible to conclude that this cabin, unlike all of the others tested, may have served as a residence, but only for a short period of time.

On the other hand, certain artifact types appear at a slightly higher frequency in this cabin than in others. This "higher frequency" is likely the result of the low overall artifact density, however, the types involved are interesting. The artifact types noted here are coins/metal tokens, fragments of slate boards, and slate pencils. The frequency of jewelry is approximately the same or very slightly higher here than for other cabins.

However, one piece of jewelry is categorically different from others found in terms of type, location within the cabin, and condition in the ground. This is a small crucifix and chain found roughly in the geographic center of the cabin. When discovered, the cross was oriented north-south, with the actual cross as on the southern side of the chain. This positioning within the cabin and the location of the cross vis--vis the chain is interesting. Equally important, in terms of its deposition, the clasp on the chain was closed. This last point indicates that the cross and its chain may not have simply fall off its wearer and become lost below the floor boards. While certainly other scenarios for the loss of this piece of jewelry can be developed, the closed clasp at least suggests the possibility of its having been intentionally placed.

This hypothesis is further supported by the presence of 2 coins located near the cross. One of these coins is an 1858 half-dollar piece found 2 feet north of the cross. The second coin is an unperforated 1858 half dime found 3.5 feet west of the cross. The coins appeared to be located roughly on lines that would be created if one were to continue out from the cross along its two axis’s. Also, it should be noted that both of these silver coins date to the same year as 3 of the coins in the cosmogram placed beneath the floor of the Conjurer/Midwife’s Cabin. Again, both the location of the coins, and their date, suggests that they maybe related to the cross, and possibly to the function of the cabin.

At some point in the history of the use of the cabin, its hearth was moved as its size was increased. That is, excavation along the west wall demonstrated that the original hearth was located near the northwest corner of the cabin, as defined by the presence of the wall trench in this area. At some point this hearth was moved approximately 12 to 13 feet southward along the west wall. It is here that what remained of the brick walls of the hearth were found. Excavation of the west side of the rebuilt hearth walls demonstrated that they met, but were not integrated into, the western brick wall of the cabin block. This is the only set of hearth walls not integrated into a cabin block wall in the 10 cabins excavated where this could be investigated.

Further, no other hearth was found within the cabin. Thus, the movement of the hearth also had the impact of increasing the size of the cabin nearly 7 feet toward the south. That is, the newly reconfigured cabin would have measured 16 by 28-29 feet. As noted in Robert Harris’ paper, the standard cabin size in Block I was 16 by 22 feet, and cabins may have had two rooms within this space. Thus, the extension of cabin I-A-1 would have increased its size, while at the same time reduced the size of cabin I-A-2 by almost exactly the amount of the narrow interior room defined by Harris.

The heaviest distribution of artifacts indicative of residential activities was located in this extension area. It is likely that this material was deposited sometime after the extension of the cabin and the movement of the hearth, but exactly when cannot be determined. However, at some point early in its history of use, cabin I-A-1 was reconfigured into a 2-room cabin with one of the rooms measuring 16 by 22 feet and the second room, possibly a residence or storage area, measuring 16 by 6 feet. This would have made it the largest cabin in the quarters. In this light, the lack of artifacts indicative of a domestic function is all the more interesting.

In this context, two unique sub-floor deposits were discovered within this cabin. The first extended around the eastern and northern sides of the reconstructed hearth. This was a thick intentionally placed deposit of ash and charcoal. Mixed into the ashy matrix of this feature were bones (some very large), small ceramic sherds, small glass sherds, broken buttons, burned shell, and square nails. This material was placed into a shallow hole dug into the ground in front of the walls to a distance of approximately one foot out from the wall. While ash and charcoal tend to increase in frequency as one approaches the hearth in each of the cabins thus far investigated, this represents the only time that a special hole was dug around the hearth to hold this material. Further, this is the only time that charcoal, ash, and small household artifacts appear to have been deposited, as opposed to accumulated, around the hearth.

The second deposit was found along the eastern wall of the cabin. The feature consists of a shallow pit dug into the soil likely near the area of the entrance to the cabin. The matrix filling the hole consisted solely of white, lime-based plaster and soil. This had been buried below two layers of crushed brick. The plaster appears to have been utilized to make some type of design on the base of the hole. Unfortunately, if they intended a design, we have not been able to fully determine what it might have been. Tree roots and ground water appear to have destroyed a large portion of it, if, indeed, any intentional design was originally present. As with the feature connected with the hearth, this is the only sealed deposit of plaster on the site.

Initially, this cabin appears typical of the others in Block I in terms of size and function—it was a residence. However, early in its use, the cabin was physically altered and its function changed. In attempting to interpret the reconstructed cabin’s function, the archaeological deposit was tested against Margaret Creels’ ethnographic description of a Gullah Praise House. Unfortunately, she does not include any discussion of the material items and artifact contexts associated with such a structure. However, a number of test implications that might be developed from her model are met by this structure. For example, she states that the Praise House was the first cabin in the quarters, often originally the residence of an important person within the slave community. This is confirmed by the data from cabin I-A-1. The presence of the cross, the coins, and the ash feature around the hearth all suggest a community ritual nature for the reconstructed cabin. Both Creel and Patricia Guthrie have demonstrated that, among the Gullah, the Praise House functioned as the center of community religious and political activities. In their data, communities are defined by households and residences on a plantation, and households are defined by the presence of hearths. Thus, it is not a great leap to attempt to interpret the ash, charcoal, and burned household artifact deposit around the reconstructed hearth as having been intentionally placed to demonstrate community membership, and helping to secure Praise House membership. Limited historical information further suggests the presence of a religious structure for the black community on the Jordan Plantation prior to 1870.

In conclusion, at least two cabins within the Jordan Plantation slave and tenant quarters had ritual and communal importance: the Conjurer/Midwife’s cabin and the Praise House/Church. The detailed excavation strategy and continuing artifact analyses have provided the archaeological contexts for an interpretation of religion and spirituality among members of this community. These interpretations are not limited to individual artifacts, they involve contextual associations of artifacts within the archaeological record. The statements made from this data are intended to invite discussion, criticism, and, most importantly, additional contextual research. We already have too many laundry lists of suggested ritual items. It is the contexts of such artifacts—and many other types--that will provide information on religion and spirituality.

This version does not include references for the in-text citations, but they will be added at a later date.
Kristine N. Brown 1998



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