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The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis

The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis

Author:Mark P. Leone
Release Date:2006
Publisher:University of California Press

By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 4/5/2006

For six weeks each summer since 1982, members of the Department of Archeology at the University of Maryland have descended on Annapolis to dig up secrets. Former gardens, print shops, and great houses have given up such clues to Colonial living as are found in old walls, tiny type face, tableware, and toothbrushes, to name a few artifacts. From the detritus, archeologist Mark Leone has built a theory about how Maryland’s capital functioned before and after the American Revolution, maintaining its “highly stratified” society, which in 1810, for example, consisted of 1,296 white people and 892 black people, of whom 564 were slaves and 328 were free.

Even among whites, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, and Leone answers the question of how these few kept the many from rising up, by hypothesizing a culture of “possessive individualism,” essentially a capitalist emphasis on freedom as defined by ownership. According to this theory, the many, instead of booting the few out of power, aspire to use the same cutlery. The few reinforce these aspirations and their own notions of a proper hierarchy though design, such as Royal Gov. Francis Nicholson’s 1695 city plan, which can still be seen today in Annapolis’ vistas of the Chesapeake Bay and State Circle.

But Leone’s most interesting discovery by far is found not in the spaces frequented by high society but rather in the kitchens and cellars, rooms once occupied by slaves. Sadly, the heart of this archeological narrative is buried 200 pages into some fairly dry academese. Readers must relive Leone’s own delayed breakthrough before arriving at the goods: spirit bundles.

The first cache was found in 1991 and consisted of 14 rock crystals, some half-dozen white bone disks, a smooth black pebble, two coins, some pins, and a piece of pottery. Other bundles, evidence of African spirit practices possibly used to manage house spirits, protect practitioners, or attempt to control white masters, were found in spiritually significant locations such as hearths, northeast corners, thresholds, and the bases of staircases. Leone uses the narratives of former slaves recorded in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project, as well as the work of scholars such as Robert Ferris Thompson and even retailers like Catherine Yronwode of, to provide background on Southern hoodoo or conjure practices. Just as Leone uncovers rich earth, he puts down his shovel; readers who want to know more about how those on the bottom rung of Annapolis society secretly rebelled against those at the top will have to do further digging. (Nicole Leistikow)

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