“I wonder if this was mine?”: Robert Bailey’s Ferry Farm

We have a unique situation here at the Ferry Farm Archaeology Lab.  One of our volunteers, who has spent hundreds of hours washing, sorting and labeling excavated artifacts, is oddly enough, also partially responsible for creating some of those artifacts in the first place!

Robert Bailey 1

Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey, his father Ray, mother Peggy and older brother Ray Jr., lived here at Ferry Farm from the late spring of 1957 until August of 1959.  His parents rented what was referred to as the “Colbert house,” a large three-story home built in 1914 by James Colbert, a farmer and businessman.

Colbert House 1

Colbert House

Robert was only five years old when he moved to Ferry Farm.  He vividly remembers playing in the many barns, running through the fields and woods that surrounded the farmhouse, and swimming in the stream that runs alongside the historic Ferry Road on hot summer days. He and his brother also showed visitors stopping to see George Washington’s boyhood home around the property and invited them to sign the guest book located inside the small late 19th century building called the Surveyor’s Shed.

Young Robert

Robert as a child (foreground left in the rocker) in the Colbert House back yard.

He also remembers playing with lots of toys typical of the time, most notably glass marbles, plastic army men, toy cars and trucks, and especially a new toy called Play Doh, a wallpaper cleaner compound that had just been reinvented as a moldable clay product for children.

DSC_0071

Collection of 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm. Clockwise from left: portion of a Playdoh canister lid, marbles including a large green shooter, green plastic army man, red plastic Indian, blue plastic Civil War soldier, four .22 caliber shelling casings.

Over 800 toy-related artifacts have been excavated and catalogued in our artifact database.  As a collection, these toys span all time periods, from colonial clay marbles, to Civil War-era dice, to a Cold War-era Sputnik ring, and most recently, Dora the Explorer sunglasses! We have also catalogued fragments of bicycle parts, dominoes, board game pieces, dolls, plastic figurines, toy guns and planes, toy cars and trucks, and dishes and tea sets.

Of course, Robert and his brother were not the only children who lived on or visited this site. Other children lived in the Colbert house before and after the Baileys resided there, and hundreds have visited the site on field trips and for special events, such as our annual Fourth of July celebration.

Robert cannot say with any certainty that any of the marbles he has washed in the lab once belonged to him, but the conversations that those marbles start are an important part of the oral and archaeological history of the site.  Robert Bailey has participated in the Foundation’s oral history program with a detailed accounting of his memories of the house and grounds.  Because he experienced living at Ferry Farm, he can tell us about not only the events and activities his family took part in, but also of the perceptions that visitors to the farm had about the importance of this site as Washington’s boyhood home.

Another vivid childhood memory that often comes to Robert’s mind is of his mother shooting at the black snakes that appeared in and around the house and yard.  According to Robert, one day a snake came out of a hole in an old gnarled tree located near the Surveyor’s Shed.  His mother dutifully brought out her rifle and proceeded to, as Robert says, “blast away” at the snake. Despite the countless number of bullets expended, she missed and the snake eventually slithered back into its hole.

Colbert House 3

Surveyor’s Shed in the foreground left with Colbert House in the background right.

While washing artifacts in the wet lab, Robert has come across a lot of .22 shell casings.  Just this past week he washed seven.  Each time one appears in an artifact bag, Robert chuckles and says “this shell casing might be one that my mom shot at the snake in the tree – and missed!”

Robert Bailey 2

Robert looks over some of the 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm that, who knows, might have belonged to him in his youth.

Sixty years have passed since the Bailey family first came to live at Ferry Farm, but the past certainly comes full circle and is alive again when Robert empties another artifact bag onto the tray and begins to sort its contents.  His connection with our archaeological site provides staff with many opportunities to record and analyze more about Ferry Farm in the 20th century. Robert’s deep commitment to helping preserve George Washington’s boyhood history, combined with his own unique insights, creates a new understanding about Ferry Farm for Robert too.

Robert’s history lies mostly in the topmost soil layers of the site as not enough time has passed to deeply bury his things. Although Robert’s lost marbles and plastic army men are mixed in with excavated toys dropped by other boys and girls, it’s fun to hear him say “I wonder if this was mine?”

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Photos: Washington’s Birthday & Archaeology Day 2017

Every February, Presidents’ Day weekend is a celebratory one at George Washington’s Ferry Farm! As always this year, George’s boyhood home marked his birthday on Saturday, February 18 and then held Archaeology Day on Monday, February 20. Here are some photos from both days.

Drink Your Vegetables: A Special 18th Century Wedgwood Ware

Fads come and go. Such is life.  Eighteenth century colonists were not immune to flash-in-the-pan trends.  However, given that information traveled a bit slower before the digital age, in the 18th century a ‘quick trend’ may have lasted 10 or 20 years, instead of 10 or 20 months.  Such is the case with ‘vegetable ware’, a refined earthenware molded to look like produce.  Imagine being the envy of all your colonial neighbors if you served them tea out of an elaborate ceramic cauliflower, pineapple, melon, or cabbage.  As evidenced by the archaeological record, Mary Washington, George’ mother, was similarly taken with the prospect of displaying her very own veggie-themed teaware.

The advent of vegetable ware seems to coincide with the development of bright green and yellow pottery glazes by a young and upcoming potter named Josiah Wedgwood in 1760.  He used these new flashy glazes for a number of applications, including coloring teaware molded to resemble produce.  While some combinations of ceramics and decorations had previously enjoyed decades or even centuries of popularity in the past, the demand for the initially popular vegetable ware seemed to drop off after only ten years, around 1770. At that time, Wedgewood indicated he was glad to send a shipment of overstocked vegetable ware to the colonies – a popular dumping ground for out of fashion or slightly damaged English goods.

vegetable-ware-tea-canisters-1

Ceramic vegetable ware tea canisters made at the Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in England between 1754 and 1764. Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Mary seemed to prefer the pineapple form and owned at least one item, if not more, of this fruit-shaped tea equipage.  Her preference for the tropical fruit design was not unique.  In the 18th century, the pineapple was an incredibly sought after luxury item loaded with symbolism.  Today, many of us, especially along the East Coast, associate the pineapple with welcoming guests into our home and as a decoration for the holidays. Colonial Americans considered it a Christian symbol as well as a display of status. They readily incorporated it into the architecture of their houses, decorated room interiors with the motif, and served food and beverages out of pineapple-shaped objects.  These were all cheaper options than displaying an actual pineapple, which was well outside the price range of the average colonial American. In fact, there are accounts of people actually renting a real pineapple for a party rather than purchasing one outright.  Rented fruit!  Let that sink in for a second.

Returning to Mary’s ceramic pineapple, which is represented archaeologically by a dozen or so sherds.  It is almost certainly some type of tea equipage, although we are not exactly

vegetable-ware-sherds

Vegetable ware sherds excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

sure which tea vessel it may be.  The pineapple color and texture are unmistakable but we’ve yet to identify the specific object.  A number of forms have been ruled out. It is not a tea or coffee pot because it appears to be relatively squat with a straight or very gently sloping body and a wide rim.  What’s especially odd about this particular vegetable ware vessel is that the rim is unglazed.  This would seem to suggest that it sported a lid of some kind or perhaps endured a defect during firing.  Hopefully more of the vessel will come to light, we’ll be able to answer the question, and proudly display pineapple teaware in the newly recreated Washington house!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Tales of a Patch Stand and a Porringer

For the past year or so my focus here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been determining what types of ceramics were owned by the Washington family. Once we have this information we want to acquire accurate examples to place in the reconstructed house for all to see.  From door hardware to teacups, most of the details of the house will be informed by archaeology or historic documents.  If a visitor asks “Why do you have these plates on the table?”, we can say “That’s an excellent question!  Because we’ve dug up pieces of it right over here!”  Our most recent focus has been on the white salt glazed stonewares, which have been featured in previous blog posts.  In this post, we talk about fragments that have been identified as a patch stand and a porringer.

First of all, identifying whole vessels from tiny sherds involves a lot of research.  This is made all the more difficult when you’re working with a ware-type such as white salt glazed that is defined by its plain white color.  So, it’s always a thrilling moment when you’re paging through a huge book with a tiny but distinctive fragment of pottery in your hand and you manage to spot the fragment’s whole object.

My most recent ‘Eureka!’ moment involved both a patch stand and a porringer.  You’ve likely never heard these terms but you may own modern day equivalents.  A patch stand is a teapot stand, designed to elevate a teapot, arguably the most important object in a tea set, above the other tea wares.  It also serves the practical purpose of keeping the hot pot off of the table surface.

18th-century-patch-stand

18th century pearlware blue and white patch stand. Credit: Woolley & Wallis.

At Ferry Farm, archaeologists found four small fragments from just such a patch stand.  The fragments all have evidence of ‘piercing’ or the cutting out of wet clay before it was fired to form a pattern.  The pattern created through piercing also promoted air circulation under the stand. Patch stands are not common in the archaeological record so we’re very happy to have identified the sherds. Now we’ll be able to furnish the new Washington house replica with a patch stand.

The other vessel is a porringer. Although kind of a weird name, porringers were really handy and ubiquitous in every colonial household.  A porringer was simply a bowl with a handle for eating soups, porridges, stews, and the like.  You may have some equivalent in your house, like those oversized coffee mugs you can also use to eat soup or cereal.

4x5 original

A silver porringer dating from 1742 and made in Boston by Samuel Gray II. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

porringer-handle-fragment

Fragment of a ceramic porringer handle excavated at Ferry Farm.

Stay tuned and keep your eyes out for a sweet patch stand and a nifty porringer once the Washington house is finished!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Inside the Archaeology Lab: Putting Artifacts on Exhibit

Here on Lives & Legacies we’ve shown you a variety of important tasks that take place inside the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. You’ve seen how we wash, catalog, label, and then mend vessels with archival glue. One goal of all this work is to piece together whole artifacts from the many broken bits found and share that whole artifact with our visitors as part of the exhibits in our museum gallery.  Right now, a new exhibit of white salt-glazed stoneware vessels is on display at Ferry Farm. It took numerous staff and volunteers working hundreds of hours to get the vessels on display ready to be exhibited. Here’s how we did it!

Seven reconstructed white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware vessels make up a new exhibit at Ferry Farm.  These pieces, which include two dinner plates, a fruit dish, three ointment pots (used for mixing medicines and cosmetics), and a tea ware or condiment pot lid, were all excavated from the Ferry Farm site. These ceramics were popular during the mid-18th century and most likely graced the tables of the Washington family.

white-salt-glaze-fruit-dish

White salt glaze stoneware fruit dish, 1740-1765. The dish is decorated with a molded “dot, diaper, basket” pattern and would have been displayed prominently in the Washington house at Ferry Farm. An almost identical dish has been excavated at Mount Vernon and additional sherds with a similar pattern were recovered across the river at Kenmore. This may signify a Washington family preference for the motif or indicate that someone within the family acquired multiple fruit dishes and gave them as gifts, something George Washington was known to do.

In preparation for the exhibit, I spent the better part of three weeks in August and September finishing the documentation for the individual vessels and then meticulously gluing them together. This relatively small amount of time spent at the end of the project was only the tip of the iceberg – the total amount of time spent getting these pieces ready for exhibition encompassed a year and a half! Preparing these pieces to be displayed involved the hard work of numerous archaeology lab staff and volunteers.

November 2014 – January 2015: Executive decisions are made…
First, discussions were held within the archaeology department about studying Ferry Farm’s archaeological collection of white salt-glazed stoneware. Such a study would answer questions about the material setting of the Washington household and help with interpreting the forthcoming Washington house replica to the public. The project was given the go-ahead.

January 2015: Getting the lists together…
Using our searchable artifact database, we generated a list of every piece of white salt-glazed stoneware in our collection.  A total number of 1,623 artifact bags were on this list, representing over 2,800 actual sherds.

database

Screencap of the artifact database.

February 2015: Puzzle-solving begins!
We started pulling the 1,623 artifact bags from storage, and by my records, we were still pulling artifact bags in June.  Lab staff, volunteers, and, on rainy days, the excavation field crews helped with pulling the artifacts.

After making sure the sherds were labeled correctly, we laid them all out on one of the lab tables, which had been covered in a black foam board to make it easier to see the all-white ceramics. The sherds were first separated by decorative variations, such as plain white salt-glazed, slip-dipped, scratch blue, or dipped with iron oxide, and next by vessel part, such as rims, bases, and bodies. Then the cross-mending began.

white-salt-glaze-artifacts-on-table

Sherds of white salt glaze stoneware waiting to be mended together.

Over the next eleven months, countless hours were spent at the table looking for mends between the sherds.  Having identifiable vessel parts, such as rims and molded and decorative elements, helped in the matching process, but there were hundreds of plain white, non-descript sherds to try and fit together.  Pieces that mended were taped together with painter’s tape, which doesn’t leave an adhesive residue on the artifacts.

A friendly competition began and whoever had the most mends at the end of each month won a free lunch!  In all, everyone spent countless, addictive hours each week scrutinizing the sherds and patiently putting together “puzzles” for which, unfortunately, the majority of the pieces were missing.

lauren-mending

“Do these match?”

vessel-209-pot-lid-recto-before-treatment

Puzzle solved!

January 2016: Minimum Vessel Count…
After eleven months, we cried “uncle” to the cross-mending and started the minimum vessel count by figuring out how many and what types of individual WSG vessels were represented in our collection.  Under the supervision of Mara Kaktins, The George Washington Foundation’s ceramic and glass specialist, the sherds were separated into what we believed were individual vessels using the bases and rim styles.  By late April, our choices were firm and over sixty white salt-glazed vessels were identified.

July 2016: Putting the paperwork in order….
Treatment reports were started on the most complete vessels, which would be included in the new exhibit.  Each report listed all the sherds that made up each vessel and their condition. Photographs were taken to help with the mending and gluing.  The remaining white salt-glazed sherds on the table were separated into bags according to decorative and body type, their contexts recorded in a spreadsheet for our records, and then returned in storage.

August 2016: Finally, the fun part – gluing!
I started gluing the vessels using a product called B-72, an archival glue that can be removed, if necessary, and that we mix ourselves in the lab.  The design of the upcoming exhibit, including the layout, mounts and signage, was created by Meghan Budinger and Heather Baldus, the Foundation’s curatorial team.

lid

White salt glaze stoneware lid, 1720-1780. This lid could have been used with any of several different vessels related to serving tea, such as a tea pot, a punch put (a large version of a tea pot), or a tea canister. Tea was an important part of 18th century life, and displaying fine teawares demonstrated social status.

September 2016: Finishing touches…
The white salt-glazed stoneware exhibit is now installed and ready for the enjoyment of our visitors to Ferry Farm. A total of 614 days from report prep to exhibition!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Digging Up a Card Table

Tantalizing evidence of historic furniture use exists within the soils of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and that evidence gives us a more complete view of how the Washington family lived in the 1700s. The hundreds of items archaeologists and students have uncovered represent the remains of furniture broken or embellishments lost. The ruthless outdoor elements leave scant vestiges of furniture’s former glory. Wood disintegrates into soil, so these relics typically include only iron and brass hardware, such as drawer pulls, casters, bolts, keyhole escutcheons, or hinges. Over half of the hardware found consists of brass tacks.  Such brass studs were often used in furniture upholstery, but were also popular for saddles, trunks, even antique wig stands: anytime a leather covering was added to a wooden frame or base.

One particularly interesting brass hinge was unearthed in 2007 and boasts an exciting past. This hinge, part of a folding card table, was a crucial element in the popular Virginia domestic pastime of playing games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Card tables provided a luxurious accessory for popular social entertaining and were part of a well-appointed home.  Providing guests with such pleasant amusements reflected well upon the Washington family.

card-table-hinge

18th century card table hinge excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Archaeological investigations sponsored by The George Washington Foundation have uncovered evidence that demonstrates that the Washingtons’ mid-1700s home was filled with fashionable accessories to enhance social bonding.  These tools included tea wares, stemmed drinking glasses, glass decanters, fashionable dining utensils, and smoking pipes. The recovery of a card table hinge provides another element of their well-equipped home.

cardtable-hinge-on-table

Gentleman often played card games together, but occasionally women joined the amusement as well (Porter and Porter 1782:466-467). Playing cards allowed ladies and gentlemen a refined form of amusement in a convivial atmosphere, without raising critical eyebrows from discerning social commentators in Virginia.  These games were occasions in which mixed company – men and women – could enjoy companionship and pass the time in a genial way. It was one of the few entertainments in which men and women could directly compete (Sturtz 1996:169-171). Lucy Byrd’s acumen prompted her husband William to cheat on at least one occasion (Sturtz 1996:172-173, 175-176).

Such benign competition also allowed players to showcase their skills. William Byrd II thought that such games provided an effective antidote to “disagreeable” company, as it allowed the time spent with tiresome guests to pass quickly (Sturtz 1996:175). Tea or stronger beverages might lubricate such gatherings, which enhanced social bonds.

hogarths-wanstead-house

Card playing (group at card table in painting’s center) and tea drinking (group at table at painting’s right) provided elegant entertainment as depicted in The Assembly at Wanstead House (1728-31) by William Hogarth. Public domain. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia

If card games included a little wager, they were all the more thrilling.  Self-assured gambling and an indifference to losing money demonstrated a gentleman’s independence from monetary anxiety (Isaac 1974:352; Koda and Bolton 2006:100; Sturtz 1996:166). Such competitive confidence went a long way towards refuting any rumors of financial stress from which a gentleman might be suffering in the community.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, these occasions were increasingly viewed as a source of social disorder (Isaac 1974:358-359), but such amusements remained popular social events in Virginia.

Cards were a popular Virginia pastime and specific furniture such as folding card tables existed as luxurious accessories to support this pasttime (Isaac 1974:352). Hospitality was an important part of these occasions (Isaac 1974:352) and the folding card table made the game and the hospitality possible.  Applying knowledge of the past to particular objects like a card table hinge excavated at Ferry Farm gives us a more complete picture of the lives led by the Washington family here in the 18th century.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

References Cited

Porter, James and William Porter
1782 Letters Addressed to Two Young Married Ladies, on the Most Interesting Subjects. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature.  British Periodicals.  Printed for J. Dodsley, London.

Goodison, Nicholas
1975 The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books.  Furniture History 11:1-30.

Issac, Rhys
1974  Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765-1775. The William and Mary Quarterly 31(3):345-368.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton
2006  Dangerous Liaisons:  Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Cunning Folk and Conjurors: Folk Magic in Colonial Virginia

The use of folk magic may seem foreign and exotic to many of us in the 21st century. If we look closer, though, it is apparent that some modern Americans still practice it today – even if they don’t realize it. Have you ever hunted for a four-leaf clover? Have you ever hung a horseshoe over your door? If so, you’re participating in a kind of folk magic.

Folk magic is (and was) thought to be a way to influence forces, seen and unseen, for good or for ill. It is sometimes referred to as “low” magic, not because it was seen as evil, but because it was passed down generation to generation rather than learned from books or formal tutors. “High” magic has its own fascinating history, but this blog post focuses on the everyday magic that 18th century Virginians, both black and white, practiced. Hoping to ward off evil and bring peace, prosperity, and abundance into their homes, some of these early Americans used magical means to their ends.

Europeans and Africans in British North America brought with them the spiritual, religious, and magical traditions of their homelands. The blending of these traditions became the bedrock for future iterations of American folk magic. One modern archaeologist says that this blending process makes it hard to tell exactly who was using what folk tradition while creating some of the material culture of folk magic; it is not always clear from the archaeological record exactly who made an object and what that object’s intended purpose was.[1]

One of the things that may have contributed to the cross-cultural blending is the similarities between English and African folk magic traditions.  Both groups recognized that there were some people who were “set apart” from the rest of the group.  These individuals were believed to possess special powers that made them respected, feared, or both. African and English traditions also shared a belief in magical objects, even everyday objects, that could be imbued with power. And lastly, both groups believed in the power of burying magical objects for protection – or for malice.

People thought talented in the magical arts were known as “cunning folk” in the English/English-American tradition and as “conjurors” in the African/African-American tradition. Cunning folk were not witches, who were thought to inhabit the fringes of society, but rather “practitioners of magic who healed the sick and the bewitched, who told fortunes, identified thieves, [and] induced love.”[2] This description of cunning folk is very similar to W.E.B. Du Bois’s definition of the conjuror, “the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong . . .”[3]

The rest of Du Bois’s quote, however, highlights an essential difference between white cunning folk and the enslaved conjuror. The conjuror was also “. . . the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people.”[4] Despite their many similarities, enslaved conjurors and cunning folk operated in very different realities. In Du Bois’s estimation, the conjuror did more than just take care of the physical and spiritual needs of the enslaved; he or she took on the weight of slavery itself.

Both conjurors and cunning folk created magical charms and charged objects with magical meaning. At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we found an excellent example of an object charged with meaning. A carnelian bead excavated on the property may indicate that a powerful conjuror might have lived here during the Washington’s time. This bead is similar to two found in Barbados and Archaeologist Jerome Handler asserts that these carnelian beads were the product of Cambay, India and were indications of the status of the person with whom they were buried.[5] Dave Muraca, director of archaeology at Ferry Farm, describes “all three beads” as “generally reddish-orange color” with “tapered ends and cylindrical shapes. Each one has 8 longitudinal facets and 4 beveled facets at each end. The main difference between the Washington site bead and the Barbadian beads is size, with the Barbadian beads being almost twice as long as the one recovered at the Washington farm.”[6]

carnelian-bead-01

Multiple views of the Carnelian bead excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

 

Cunning folk also made objects with magical meaning. Written charms, or amulets, were popular since they were easy to make and could be worn on the body. These charms often served as protection for people and livestock against witches’ attacks. An example of these charms can be found in Colonial Williamsburg’s Special Collections. This small piece of paper, dating to about 1700, promised to protect the wearer from “any mannor [sic] of Witchcraft or Evle [sic] spirit.” The amulet invokes the power of faith and the intervention of Jesus Christ on behalf of the afflicted woman. It closes with “amen, amen, amen,” and “fiat, fiat, fiat;” “fiat” being the Latin translation of ‘amen.” “Fiat” and “amen” had been used together since the 2nd century, particularly when the prayer it ended was one of condemnation.[7]

SCMS2004.14; Witchcraft Amulet; 18th c. ?

Witchcraft amulet, circa 18th century.  Credit: Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller,  Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

It was not uncommon for black and white practitioners of magic, to bury magical objects for protection. The nature of these objects may have been different, but the intent was the same – warding off evil and restoring peace to the household. At Ferry Farm, archaeologists have discovered whole oysters deliberately buried in the stone-lined cellar of the Washington house. The act of burying the oysters, which were seen as magical objects in the African/African American community, was likely an effort to protect the home. They were often used in burial rituals and were associated with death and the afterlife; an association that makes the oyster shells found at Ferry Farm all the more intriguing.

whole-oyster-shells-1

Whole oyster shell excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

English/English-Americans also buried objects for protection, but some of the objects they buried were man-made rather than a product of the natural world. Witches bottles, often glass bottles filled with pins, nails, and even human urine, were designed to cure the afflicted of his or her bewitchment. A witch bottle found near in Virginia Beach, Virginia, known as the Great Neck witch bottle, dates to 1690-1750. Archaeologist M. Chris Manning describes it as being, “[a] small, narrow, light green glass medicine vial was found buried in an inverted [upside-down] position” containing 25 brass pins and 3 iron nails. It may have also contained the urine of the bewitched at some point.[8]   These bottles were designed to hurt witches; their pins and needles were thought to injure those who placed malevolent spells on the innocent. In both the African/African-American and the English/English-American tradition, these buried objects were tasked with banishing evil forces in an effort to bring in positivity and peace to the household.

These are just a few examples of the similarities between the African and the English folk magic traditions. There are significant differences, in part because “magic” was part of African cosmology, meaning religion and magic were tied together, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ended and the other began. This is different from the English tradition, where religion and folk magic were seen as separate, at least officially. Religious and secular authority figures in colonial America condemned the use of folk magic, but this did little to stem the tide of magic’s popularity.

The next time you pick up a lucky penny or even cross your fingers, remember that you are participating in a tradition older than America itself. While we may not make witches bottles or bury oyster shells anymore, there are plenty of instances where we seek luck, protection, love, and other good vibes through essentially “magical” means.

Kelly Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Christopher C. Fennell, “Conjuring Boundaries: Inferring Past Identities from Religious Artifacts,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp.284.

[2] Owen Davies. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, (London: Continuum), 2007, p. VII.

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches, (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.), 1903, 211.

[4] Ibid. https://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/captivepassage/arrival/arr019.html Accessed 17 October 2016.

[5] Jerome S. Handler, “An African-Type Healer/Diviner and His Grave Goods: A Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 1, No.1, (June 1997), 91-130.

[6] David Muraca, “Murder and Magic at the Washington Farm,” George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA, unpublished report, 9.

[7] “amen amen, fiat fiat: theological, liturgical, bureaucratic”  Douglass Galbi, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.purplemotes.net/2014/06/01/amen-amen-fiat-fiat/

[8] M. Chris Manning, “Homemade Magic: Concealed Deposits in Architectural Contexts in the Eastern United States,” Master’s Thesis, Ball State, 2012, 114.