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February 16, 2000, Wednesday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 696 words

HEADLINE: Common Objects Are an Uncommon Find; Extensive Collection of African American Hoodoo Artifacts Uncovered in Annapolis

BYLINE: Linda Wheeler , Washington Post Staff Writer


The discovery of a series of carefully placed sacred objects underneath a brick kitchen floor of an old Annapolis house has delighted historians who say the find is an extraordinary and significant example of a distinct early African American ritual.

The objects and their placement indicate that a person or group of people working in that kitchen and the adjoining laundry room practiced Hoodoo, a post-Civil War, African American belief that the spirit world can be diverted, controlled or held off at times. Although the items are common objects such as coins, buttons and bottles, within the context of Hoodoo, they become sacred.

Although Hoodoo was widely practiced at the end of the 19th century by African Americans throughout the Deep South, the collection of more than 300 artifacts in the historic Annapolis house constitutes one of only a few such extensive finds in the country and the only one in Maryland.

The find is important because it represents a mingling of African and American cultures, said Mark Leone, a University of Maryland history professor who worked on the interpretation of the find. The practice of burying natural ingredients such as rock, roots and dirt for protection was brought from Africa, he said. The use of manufactured items mixed with natural objects showed the American influence, he said.

"It was African ritual that had become Americanized," Leone said. "There were American items used such as a perfume bottle and a military buckle. What is important here is the mix."

The objects, to the uneducated viewer, are simply pieces of roots, clusters of feathers and miniature bottles, along with beads, coins and buttons. To the experts, they are items selected for their metaphoric value. A piece of root is meant to anchor someone to a certain place, the feathers are for flight, and the bottles to contain evil spirits.

"Hoodoo was a way for African Americans to get away from their troubles," he said. "It was an antidote to racism."

In the five-sectioned Georgian building at East and Prince George's streets, known as the Brice House, almost all of the objects found bordered each side of a doorway that connected a kitchen and a laundry. At the south end, where the laundry hearth was located, a bundle of gray feathers was found hidden beneath a brick. At the north end, in the kitchen, pieces of a tiny porcelain doll had been secreted beneath a brick in the hearth.

Archaeologist Jessica L. Neuwirth, of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, worked with Leone on the excavation. On Monday, she stood in the space where the objects had been found.

The fireplaces form a north-south axis, she pointed out, and the two opposing doorways--one leading outside and the other into the main part of the house--form an east-west axis. The intersection of the two axes was where the greatest concentration of objects was found, Neuwirth said.

"It forms a metaphoric crossroads," she said. "If you connect the outer points, you have a cosmogram, a circle or oval or diamond, that is a symbolic representation of how the universe works and how human beings live in the universe."

Each quarter represents the voyage through life, from birth to peak to decline to death and the rebirth of the spirit. Cosmograms are usually round, she said, like the coins and buttons found at the dig. The circle is important because it represents a smooth journey from birth to the spirit life.

City records show that Sara Watkins, an African American woman servant, lived above the kitchen beginning in 1880, said Leone's assistant Matthew Corcharan. It is possible that she, alone or with others, placed the items under the bricks, he said.

He created an image of her supervising her domain and dealing with life's problems through Hoodoo. Arthritis could be cured when a bent nail was buried or a family member kept from leaving town if the right root was selected.

Neuwirth said she had no concerns about removing the Hoodoo artifacts from their hiding places. "What was done here was finished," she said. "The material didn't have any life once the [Hoodoo] person left the house and left it all behind."


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