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Small Finds, Big Stories: The Last Day Curse

We just wrapped up another season of fieldwork at the Eutaw Manor House, and as usual, we were struck by the Last Day Curse: the uncanny phenomenon that causes us to find the most puzzling and intriguing things at the absolute last possible minute of a dig.

Excavation in the kitchen & slave quarter at Eutaw

Earlier this week, as we were digging in the northeast corner of the slave quarter, we noticed a large, flat stone placed directly against the foundation wall. In all likelihood, wooden floor boards once covered this stone, but have long since burned and rotted away. When we removed the stone, we discovered what appeared to be a pit underneath the stone, with large pieces of pottery, a handful of bones, and other objects visible on the surface.

Which brings us to a question: Do you ever think about the many ways that magic is incorporated into our daily lives?

Do you pick up pennies when they’re heads-up, but not tails-up? Do you have a lucky coin or pair of socks? Have you ever heard of the local tradition of burying a little statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your yard when you want to sell your house? (I hadn’t, but a friend swears this is true). Do you believe in things like The Last Day Curse?

People in the past also had traditions for managing the spirit world, or the unseen forces that guide our lives. Some European Americans used witch bottles to prevent witches from infesting their homes, others placed shoes inside the walls of their homes as a form of spiritual protection, and African Americans sometimes called upon traditional West African practices to protect their dwellings, by placing small collections of objects in specific locations in their homes – sometimes in small caches that were placed in a subfloor pit under a hearthstone, near the threshold of a door, or in an arrangement oriented to the cardinal directions.

All of these traditions borrowed from each other and transformed in the New World. Importantly, most of the people who engaged in these activities identified with “mainstream” religions like Christianity, and these traditions from their homelands coexisted peacefully with their religious beliefs, just like our superstitions do today. The practice of using herbs, roots, and other everyday objects as tools to manage the unseen or supernatural realm is sometimes known as rootwork, conjure, root doctoring, laying tricks, or hoodoo, and the collections of objects placed in a secret location are known as caches or spiritual middens. They can be hard to identify, because the items used in caches aren’t particularly exotic – they’re just everyday objects, assembled together and left in unusual places. So just like everything else in archaeology, context is EVERYTHING when identifying caches.

Which brings us back to the slave quarter at Eutaw. When we saw that little collection of objects underneath the stone, our minds immediately leapt to the idea of a hoodoo cache!

We excavated it today, and at first, it was promising: we found several large pieces of ceramics in colors associated with other caches from this time period: one red, one white, one blue, one green. We found a white bone button with a hole in the center (pierced coins or discs are often included in caches). But then…the pit turned out to be longer than we originally thought, running alongside the entire length of the wall. It was also deeper than previously expected. Then we started finding all kinds of things – animal bone, pipe stems, oyster shells, and other objects in incredible quantities. And then we found several rat skulls and other bones.

Hmmm…trenchy.

 

Rat skull

Ultimately, while this feature produced a large number of interesting artifacts, it appears it was a builder’s trench for the wall, which later became a rodent burrow. It’s still possible that some of the items found near the top of the feature were part of a cache arranged before the stone was placed at this location (it’s not unusual for people to use a magical “fix” as well as a practical one for unwanted openings in their homes), but the degree of disturbance was too great for us to say this with any certainty. Still…some of the items we found don’t make sense as part of a builder’s trench OR a rodent burrow. Consensus: it’s not definitely a cache, but neither is it definitely not a cache.

The bone buttons, large pieces of unusual pottery, etched glass and diamond-shaped piece of lead (now partially curled/folded) are particularly suggestive of conjuring activity.

If that conclusion seems unsatisfying, never fear, because about fifteen minutes later we found the remains of a wooden door with iron strap hinges, and at the threshold of that door, we discovered an indisputable hoodoo cache.

Strap hinge and burned remains of door.

 

A neat, rectangular pit in the floor at the threshold of the door!

A concealed rectangular pit at the door’s threshold contained an interesting assemblage of artifacts: a wishbone, a jawbone, a piece of lead, several white buttons (two shell, two pressed glass), a piece of red jasper, a quartz flake, a pierced bronze disc, a partial iron disc, a piece of blue-and-white porcelain, a fragment of pencil lead, and a small clothing fastener that may have been used to hold together a fabric bundle that has since decayed.

Cached items

The rectangular pit that held these items has no other practical purpose, and the artifacts found inside, while not unusual in and of themselves, ARE unusual in that they don’t have any obvious relationship to one another in this context that makes sense – unless they were used as part of a spiritual practice.

So what does this tell us?

It tells us that African traditions were remembered and practiced at Eutaw, that identity and history were not forgotten. It tells us that people’s lives may have been severely limited by slavery, but that their interior worlds were free. It tells us that stories were passed down from one generation to the next, and that the people who heard the stories knew their importance. It tells us that people brought African culture with them to America and made it into something new. It tells us that the enslaved families at Eutaw took agency over their lives when and where they could, and that they left traces of those moments behind.

The last day of fieldwork left us with a LOT of questions, but it was a truly wonderful experience. Thanks to all of you who worked with us this week, and were present for this and all our other astonishing discoveries!

 

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