PHILADELPHIA -- The truth of the past can disappear as easily under a blanket of assumptions as under the dust and debris that accumulates in the physical world.

What sort of pots did a group of people cook in? What did their homes look like? What were their stories, their beliefs? The realities of life as it was lived can become a stew of historical tidbits, misconstrued truths, and outright-imagined facts.

Robert L. Schuyler, a teacher and archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the first in his field to become interested in the real experiences of early African-Americans.

He edited the first book of archaeological findings on the subject, a slim volume with a weighty title: "Archaeological Perspectives on Ethnicity in Afro-American and Asian-American Cultural History."

The book came out in 1980. It's out of print now. But Schuyler doesn't seem concerned about that.

'Explosion of fieldwork'

He's more anxious to point out what has happened in the 17 years since the anthology made it onto the shelves of college bookstores.

At the time his book was published, it included a bibliography citing all available references to actual archaeology that revealed the material culture of black people through two centuries of slavery.

"There were 50 references of any type - articles or books," he said. Some of those references could have been nothing more than a single sentence - or a single phrase - in an obscure academic publication.

Schuyler, who was sitting in his office at Penn as he talked about the first, brief, official forays into African-American archaeology, got up and walked around from behind his desk.

He had a more recent book in his hand.

It was a copy of "Uncommon Ground (Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800)," by his colleague at the University of South Carolina, Leland Ferguson. "Uncommon Ground" was published in 1992. It is still very much in print.

And it contains 1,000 references, Schuyler said: "That reflects an explosion of fieldwork."

True enough. But in the realm of African American archaeology, Ferguson contends, "we're still at the beginning."

Despite increased attention to the perspective of African Americans who were slaves, the record of North American slavery remains essentially the one-sided record of slave-owners.

Relics remain

But still, buried in the fields of long-defunct plantations, sometimes closer to the "big house" than a historian would have thought, relics remain, including shards of pottery, cooking pots, nails, post-holes for the posts that supported the homes of people brought from separate African nations - to a world of slave-owners and overseers, where they would create a society of their own.

"If you go to any of the plantations - the old plantations, in the low country of South Carolina - and find a place where the rain has washed the soil, and see artifacts sticking up ... all those artifacts, with a few exceptions, were left by African-Americans," Ferguson said. "We find their houses, the bottles that they used, the nails that held their posts, the pipes they smoked ...

"We discovered this whole mass of low-fired pottery that we call 'Colono Ware.' ... It wasn't fired in a hot oven, like stoneware. It was fired in an open fire, like a fireplace or a campfire," Ferguson said.

Nevertheless, "even though we find tens of thousands of shards of this kind of material, we don't find any reference in the writings of the planters, or any of the writers, who were overwhelmingly white. ... They don't talk about this pottery. It's shocking because there was so much of it around," Ferguson said.

Theresa Singleton, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution who is among only a few African-Americans working in the field, agrees with Ferguson.

"Things have improved, but I think it's still a pretty pervasive problem in early American scholarship," Singleton said.

"So much of how we think about the past is a form, or way, of how we look at the present," she said. "And I think a lot of people in the present just see African-Americans as pretty much assimilated - just the same, culturally, as white Americans - so they don't think there is a significant role" African-Americans played in forming the social structure of North America.

But the evidence is there, in the earth, and it dates back to the days when slave-owners also were pioneers, and social rules defining racial interactions had not yet solidified.

Archaeologists have discovered that slaves on the first plantations came close to duplicating their African homes.

Describing a typical 17th- or mid-18th-century plantation, Ferguson said, "I think it would have looked a whole lot like a West or Central African village, with clay-walled houses, thatched roofs, with people using earthen pottery, people with swept yards, cooking outside. ...

"Most of our view of plantation life comes from movies like 'Gone With the Wind,' and they are picturing middle 19th century, after all the pioneering days were over," Ferguson said.

By that time, Ferguson said, "planters were becoming more and more wealthy - and establishing more and more control over the layout of their plantations."

Such insights provide archaeologists with a deeper sense of the evolving social dynamics in the economic system of American slavery.

They are also beginning to understand that escape attempts, or tales of such attempts, were a profound part of the slave experience from the outset of bondage in North America.

A traveling exhibit

Relying on such new information, a traveling exhibit now at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania recalls the first successful encampment of escaped slaves in Florida: Fort Mose, called, for purposes of the exhibition, "Colonial America's Black Fortress of Freedom."

The show provides more than a glimpse into the brief life of Fort Mose as a haven for former slaves; they moved to Cuba when Florida was turned over to England in 1763.

It also affords details of African- American life during the Colonial period that is both more vivid and more varied than historians once believed.

One example is the Colono Ware that Ferguson spoke of. It was first made by Indian slaves - who died from white-imported diseases and were replaced by Africans, who refashioned the cookware according to their own designs and purposes.

Often, a cross, or an X, can be found on the bottom of the pottery - "always in the center," according to Ferguson, who has found the same incisions on the pottery of spiritual healers in present-day Zaire and Angola.

"It is used for what is called 'centering,' " Ferguson said. "It's ritually placing something, or someone, in the center between two different worlds" - the physical world and the spiritual world.

"I am beginning to think that a lot of this pottery was used to cook medicine - as it is in West and Central Africa today, where earthenware pottery is required by traditional healers. So that the pot becomes one of the ingredients of this medicine," Ferguson said.

Then Ferguson began to sound as gratified as Schuyler by the advances of research in the field.

"I would never have thought 20 years ago that we would be thinking in terms of interpreting early African American ritual, or thinking in terms of medicine," he said.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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