Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Well Traveled Mollusk

 By Dave Shonyo
Staff Archaeologist

It had lain there for perhaps 250 years – unseen, far from home, in strange company. Then it came to light again on a summer day in 2013.

Artifacts from a cache of possible ritual items.  On the left is one of two pieces of petrified wood found in the assemblage.   A cowrie shell is in the middle.  The right hand object is a Mason bottle seal.

One of George Mason’s sons, John, mentioned in his Recollections two clusters of slave dwellings near the Gunston Hall mansion. One was called “Log Town” and was located somewhere to the northwest of the mansion. To the east of the mansion were “servant houses.” The remains of slave dwellings on colonial-era plantations are notoriously difficult to find, and none had been found at Gunston Hall. The structures seldom had masonry foundations. Rather, they were usually anchored to the ground with posts. So, all that is left of the structures are a series of discolorations in the soil where the posts used to be.

Slave dwellings usually had earthen floors. Pits were often dug into the floors by the occupants. These sub-floor pits (sometimes called “hidey-holes”) could be used to store certain kinds of food items and keep personal belongings out of sight. They could also sometimes be used to house ritual items. It is often these pits that provide an archaeologist a first clue that the site of a slave dwelling has been found.

During the 2013 field season we excavated in an area to the east of the mansion, well beyond where the formally-maintained lawns and gardens would have been in Mason’s time. Among the findings were two adjacent, well-defined circular pits. One was a bit over two-feet in diameter and the other was about six feet in diameter.

Could these be sub-floor pits that once resided in a slave dwelling? Circular sub-floor pits have been reported from other plantation sites, but they are not common. A circular pit six-feet in diameter would be particularly unusual. The soil that filled the smaller pit did not contain any artifacts. However, the bottom of the pit contained a layer of small cobbles. The top-most layer of cobbles was arranged in a spiral pattern. Spirals are powerful symbols in many West African traditional cultures. It is possible, therefore, that the pit had some spiritual significance.

The larger pit appears to have been used as a receptacle for trash and garbage after it was no longer being used for its original purpose. The abundant artifacts found here are just what would expect from the dwelling of slaves that worked in the mansion and the surrounding grounds and outbuildings. The floor of the pit was lined with a single layer of cobbles. Near the center of the pit floor was found an interesting assemblage of artifacts. These were: A bottle seal bearing the initials of George and Ann Mason (plus the date, 1760), two pieces of petrified wood and a cowrie shell (see photo).

Bottle seals are not uncommon artifacts at Gunston Hall, but petrified wood and cowries are not native to any place near the site. The cowrie is of particular interest, since these shells are usually associated with slave occupation areas when found in this region of North America. Traditionally, two species of cowrie (and ours is not one of those species) were used as money in West Africa. Other cowries had a symbolic significance, representing fertility, childbearing and wealth. They were also used in divination. These traditions accompanied the West Africans who were brought as slaves to the New World.

The species found at Gunston Hall has been identified as a reticulated cowrie helmet (Cypraecassis testiculus). This is a mollusk native to the waters of the tropical West Atlantic and Caribbean. The Gunston Hall specimen is the only example of the species to have been found an archeological site in Virginia. In fact, cowries (all of other species) have been found at only two other sites in Northern Virginia: Ferry Farm (one specimen) and Mount Vernon (two specimens).

According to records covering the years 1700 to 1770, only 36% of slave ships disembarking in Northern Virginia ports came directly from Africa. The others came from the Caribbean or mainland North America. So, it seems reasonable to surmise that the Gunston cowrie was originally gathered by a slave residing in the Caribbean region or a more southerly American colony and accompanied a slave who was traded north. It may have been passed from hand to hand, perhaps over several generations. (The glossy surface typical of cowrie shells has been almost completely worn away.)

So, what was the shell doing at the bottom of a pit dating to the 1760’s or 1770’s? First of all, it should be said that the evidence uncovered so far strongly suggests that we have a sub-floor pit in a slave dwelling, but there is not yet enough evidence to declare that with certainty. The investigation is still a work in progress. However, assuming for the moment that this was a sub-floor pit, let’s speculate a little about the assemblage of artifacts found at its base. First, there is the cowrie shell with its strong traditional symbolisms. Then, there is the petrified wood. What kind of powerful magic would it take to turn wood to stone? Perhaps some of that power still resided in the stone. Finally, the bottle seal with its initials has a strong personal connection with the Master and his wife. Could this be a kind of magic kit? Were spells being cast here and fortunes being told? While we are speculating, let’s take another look at that large pit. Why would someone go to the trouble of digging an almost perfectly circular, bowl-shaped pit just to store yams (or whatever) when it would be easier, faster and just as useful to dig another shape? Does this pit also have some spiritual significance? Oh, well. It may turn out to be something much more mundane. Nevertheless, I kind of like the idea of magic being worked out behind the Big House at Gunston Hall.


My thanks go to Prof. Barbara Heath for sharing the text of her presentation on Cowrie Shells in Colonial Virginia (given at the Annual Meeting of the Council for Northeastern Historical Archaeology, Nov. 8-10, 2013), from which I have shamelessly borrowed some of the above information. I also thank Dr. Jerry Haresewych of the Div, of Mollusks, Smithsonian Institution, for identifying the species of the Gunston Cowrie.

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