The Demory Site
Excavations at a late eighteenth-century house site in Loudoun County, Virginia, uncovered an artifact which was likely an object of malevolent conjuration. Such artifacts of "magic to harm" have rarely been found (Wilkie, 1997, p. 88). Due to their covert and secretive character, one would expect the least amount of sharing and borrowing of such traditions across ethnic boundaries. Also due to their secretive nature, such beliefs and practices are typically under-reported in the historical documentary record, and archaeological investigations provide a valuable avenue of detecting and interpreting their use and significance (Wilkie, 1997, p. 93).
Archaeologists, folklorists and historians have often studied past social settings in which there was evidence of a continuing exercise of private, instrumental expressions of a religion in the space of households, and yet there was no evidence of the public display of group exercises of that belief system. When addressing such subjects, analysts often employ a variety of terms to such individualized practices, including phrases such as folk religion, superstition, conjuration, cunning, magic, divination, witchcraft, hoodoo and voodoo. While such distinguishing terms are useful indications that only individualized invocations are under study, it is important to emphasize that these private uses were just one manifestation of the beliefs and practices encompassed within a full and comprehensive religion. The past suppression of public and group exercise of one religion by the impact of another, dominant religion does not mean that individualized invocations of the non-dominant religion represented the mere "debris" of that belief system. Those private, symbolic deployments instead served as vital and evolving continuations of what was a comprehensive religious world view.
An initial question is whether this artifact uncovered at the Loudoun house site can be interpreted as the material expression of folk religious beliefs, or something else. Next, if an artifact of folk religion, can it be attributed to one or more ethnic groups, be they African American or European American? Similarly, would it have been meaningful only to members of one of those groups, or would it have been meaningful to members of multiple groups? If it would have been meaningful to multiple groups, what significance does that factor hold?
The artifact in question is a small clay figure of a human skull (Fig. 1). The object is 3/4 of an inch tall, and was sculpted by skilled hands. It has very well defined renderings of the eye sockets, nose socket and teeth. On the upper back of the skull is a raised figure of a large X, which could also denote St. Andrew's cross (a "saltire," in heraldry terms), or crossed bones. The initials R, H, S and D appear in raised clay between the arms of the X (Fig. 2). The initial H is more eroded than the others, and could be an M. The skull is made of a type of red-yellow clay available from the subsoils of the area (U.S.G.S., 1996; 1960). X-rays and magnetic tests reveal that it has a small loop of iron wire as an internal core. The person who made this object likely used the wire as a base to hold the clay when sculpting the figure.
Figure 1. Front view of object.
|View a diagram of the house plan and artifact location|
This house site is located six miles to the south of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It is a relatively isolated site in a heavily-wooded area halfway up the Short Hill Mountains in the Loudoun Valley, which lies immediately east of the Shenandoah Valley. This house site dates to the period of approximately 1780 onward. The standing house is one and half stories tall, one room deep, two rooms wide, with a central chimney for stoves, and was constructed of thick, hand-hewn timbers interwoven in a cross-notch fashion.
Studies in architectural history indicate that the layout, floor plan and methods of construction utilized in this house were employed primarily by German settlers in this region (Chappell, 1986, pp. 28-30; Glassie, 1978, pp. 411-13; Lay, 1982, p. 19). However, the possible ethnic identity of the persons who built the house does not necessarily inform us of potential ethnic identities of later occupants, or their acquaintances, who may have created or used this artifact. Historical data provides evidence of the types of ethnic groups that inhabited this region in the relevant period. For example, a fairly large contingent of German settlers emigrated from the Pennsylvania area into the northern Virginia Piedmont in the mid-eighteenth century, as did many Irish and Scots-Irish settlers. Free and enslaved African Americans were also present, as were English settlers who moved into the region from the Tidewater area of Virginia (Poland, 1976, pp. 6, 27, 131; Wust, 1969, pp. 17-26).
The other artifacts recovered at the Loudoun County site include fairly basic mass-produced ceramics, glass wares, and iron hardware of the period. Land ownership records indicate that this property was acquired by Peter Demery (also spelled Demory or Dimory) and his wife Mary in the late 1700's or early 1800's. They first held a lease, established a homestead on a neighboring parcel of land, and then purchased this upland parcel in 1811 from the Fairfax family (Loudoun County, Virginia, Deed Books 2D, p. 331, 2N, pp. 371-73). Peter was born in 1768 and died in 1843; Mary was born in 1769 and died in 1849. Their son Mahlon was born in 1810 and died in 1870. Harry Demery, who was likely one of Mahlon's children, was born in 1840 and died in 1915. All of these individuals are buried at church cemeteries near the house site. It is unlikely that Peter and Mary lived at this upland house site, because they more likely resided on a nearby parcel closer to the valley floor, and purchased the smaller, upland parcel for the purpose of using its timber and land for additional pasturage. However, one of their adult children may have lived in this upland log house when starting their own household and family at some point. The Demerys and all subsequent owners of the property, as recorded in deed records, appear to have been of European descent. Peter and his sons each owned one or two enslaved African Americans at different times during the late antebellum period.
Our first question is whether this skull can be interpreted as something other than a conjure item. Many of the alternative explanations relevant to this skull could be explored as well when interpreting artifacts at other sites which might be viewed as conjure items. The specific attributes of each object, the context in which it was located, and associated artifacts will be vital to each interpretation (Brown & Cooper, 1990, pp. 16-19; Stine et al.,1996, pp. 64-65).
One possibility is that this skull was a clay toy or gaming piece. Historical archaeologist Ivor NoŽl Hume (1969, pp. 314-15) found a variety of remarkably well-formed toy "[f]igurines made in two-piece molds from colored clay [that] were popular in the seventeenth century" among English settlers in Virginia. However, he found no toys of this type from the eighteenth century or later (NoŽl Hume, 1969, p. 315). The likelihood that this handmade skull figurine was a toy is undermined by the detailed inscriptions of the X insignia and initials, for which it is difficult to posit a function on a toy form. The insignias and sculpted details on this item also do not show the degree of surface wear from handling one might expect if it were used as a toy or gaming piece (Klingelhofer, 1987, p. 116). Catalogues of toy pieces from colonial and nineteenth-century America reveal no attributes related to the form and detail of this artifact.
This skull could also be an icon of a family's "coat of arms." The skull and cross-bone figures could be features of an armorial design, and the initials R, H, S and D correspond to a family name or motto. The cross could also be a figure of St. Andrew's cross, which typically signifies a unification of different realms, such as heavenly and earthly realms or territorial realms (Cirlot, 1962, p. 66).
This possibility was tested by examination of a collection of 112,600 coats of arms from Great Britain and Europe known to exist up through the nineteenth century (Rolland & Rolland, 1953). This collection revealed only 3 family crests that used a skull and cross-bones motif: a family of Dalmatia with the unfortunate name of Morte, the Motte family of Bohemia, and the Schrickel family of Gorlitz. None of these coats of arms have accompanying mottoes or other terms which would correspond with the initials R, H (or M), S and D. Nor are these family names recorded in extensive lists of those who emigrated from the districts of Germany to the American colonies (Yoder, 1953). Catalogues of armorial mottoes were also examined, and no motto was identified that corresponds directly to these four initials.
A similar possibility is that the skull was an icon representative of a guild society or similar association, such as the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, or Knights of Pythias (Yoder, 1965, p. 52). For example, late nineteenth-century medallions and watch charms were sold at retail which included skull and cross-bones motifs for the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows (Weber, 1971, p. 629; Israel, 1968, pp. 421-22). However, historical information on these groups and examples of their memorabilia show no corresponding use of the combined motifs and initials as on the Loudoun County artifact.
The skull could also have been a form of memento mori, similar to small amulets and medallions produced throughout Europe over the past few centuries. These objects typically commemorated the death of a particular individual, provided a general invocation of the inevitability of death and the wisdom of living with humility in the face of such mortality, or were worn as protective charms against epidemic diseases (e.g., Weber, 1971, pp. 2-4, 605-06). Skeletons, grim reapers, skulls, bones and cherubs were frequent components in the designs of these small objects. However, an examination of Frederick Weber's extensive survey of memento mori revealed none with design, motifs and initials directly corresponding to the design of the Loudoun County artifact. For example, the initials R, H, S and D do not correspond with known mottoes on such items, even if the H and D (or M and D) were taken to be the initials of the deceased.
Thus, possible interpretations other than conjuration prove unpersuasive. The next question is whether the skull was the product of a conjuration tradition associated with one or more ethnic groups in the relevant region and time period. Fairly extensive evidence is available from oral histories, slave narratives, and other studies in folklore and archaeology to support the interpretation that this skull was produced in accordance with African American traditions of folk religion.
Interviews with former slaves and free African Americans report the use of an X insignia as an invocation sign within their conjuration traditions (Franklin, 1997, p. 251; Georgia Writers' Project, 1940, p. 135; Steiner, 1901, p. 173; Young, 1997, pp. 21-22). The X insignia might also be of similar derivation and significance as the cosmogram etchings which Ferguson found associated with African American Colono Ware pottery in the Carolinas and Virginia (Ferguson, 1999; 1992, pp. 111-16; Orser, 1994, pp. 38-39).
Similarly, African American conjuration traditions included the practice of marking a conjure item with an "X" and identifying the targeted person by etching his or her name into the item, or writing the name on paper wrapped around the conjure. Those traditions also included a practice of placing conjure items beneath the floor or steps of a door through which the target person regularly walked, or in the soil of a pathway they used, as a way to facilitate the working of the conjure (Bacon & Herron, 1896, p. 145; Hand, 1964, pp. 105-06; Perdue et al., 1976, pp. 243-44, 263; Steiner, 1901, p. 177). For example, to "throw off" a malevolent spell, the target of that spell places his or her own conjure item under the doorstep of the first suspected conjurer and casts the malevolent spell back on the first conjurer (Hand, 1964, pp. 105-06; see Wilkie, 1997, pp. 88-89).
These objects were not used as fetishes for repeated rituals of worship, but rather as individual invocations of spiritual forces to achieve a particular result (Genovese, 1976, p. 224; Leone & Fry, 1999, p. 383). In the voluminous oral histories of African American beliefs on conjuration practices, there is a notable dearth of references to specific, personified invocations of God, Christ, the Devil, or other named deities. Instead, conjurations are typically described as invoking a form of nonpersonified spiritual power.
Image magic can be worked, according to a number of African American accounts, by making an image of the target person in wax, mud, clay, beeswax, dough, or cloth, and piercing that image with pins or nails. The addition to this image of hair, fingernail or toenail trimmings, or personal possessions of the target person would strengthen the power of the conjure item (Hand, 1964, p. 103; Puckett, 1926, p. 244). Malevolent image magic could also be achieved by drawing a picture of the target person, hanging the picture up and shooting it or driving nails into it (Hand, 1964, p. 109; Puckett, 1926, p. 245). A variety of techniques using pictures have been recorded through folklore studies: a photograph hung upside down will kill the person depicted; bury a person's photograph in the graveyard, and that person will die when the image fades away; place a tintype photograph in water, and as the image fades, so will the person depicted (Hand, 1964, p. 109; Hyatt, 1965, pp. 807, 810; Puckett, 1926, pp. 244-45).
One could ward off conjurers and witches by placing an X on a Bible and keeping it in the house (Hand, 1964, p. 128; Puckett, 1926, p. 568; Steiner, 1901, p. 178). The sign of the cross was also used to ward off curses (Hand, 1964, p. 164). Horseshoes, and the nails used to fasten horseshoes, were also used to ward of malevolent conjures (Hand, 1964, p. 107; Perdue et al., 1976, p. 278; Puckett, 1926, pp. 291, 314). Lastly, African American folklore also has a record of items similar to the English witch-bottle. It was believed within African American traditions that one could catch a witch in a bottle that had a stopper stuck with pins (Hand, 1964, p. 131; Puckett, 1926, p. 161). Similarly, African American conjure items have been found which incorporated a bottle-like vessel to contain other components, and this was buried under the doorway or pathways likely traversed by the target person (Samford, 1996, p. 109; Wilkie, 1997, pp. 88-89).
These records of African American conjuration practices show that the skull uncovered in Loudoun County could be interpreted as a conjure item created in accordance with these beliefs. Recently discovered documentary evidence indicates that in the 1840s the Demery family owned two enslaved African-American men, named Joseph and Henry. One of those individuals could have been knowledgeable about such beliefs and practices. The crossed lines or "X" would signify the invocation of spiritual forces. The purpose of the invocation would be communicated by the use of the accompanying symbol of the skull to signify death. The initials would identify the person targeted by the curse, and this skull figure could have been buried under the floorboards to work its magic as that person walked over the hidden item. The simple burying of such a conjure item could have the significance of invoking death as well. The initials of "MD" or "HD" match the names of members of the Demery family, such as Harry or Mahlon. However, the initials "RS" cannot be explained as identifying a targeted person. Detailed census and tax records reveal no one with those initials living in the area during the relevant time periods.
In contrast, could this artifact have been produced by a member of one of the European ethnic groups known to have settled in this region during the relevant period? Little information is available in the published reports written by historical archeologists in America that would help in answering this question. However, fairly extensive evidence is available in oral histories and folklore studies, and in archeological reports primarily by anthropologists working outside the United States. The following discussion summarizes evidence on a broad array of conjuration practices, each of which will inform possible interpretations of the skull from the Loudoun County site. Moreover, this discussion further illustrates the degree of similarities among such folk religion beliefs and practices of European American and African American ethnic groups.
A number of techniques of conjuration and charms used in England and Germany in the period of the sixteenth century onward appear to have antecedents in classical Greco-Roman practices. Others appear to have developed from Anglo-Saxon or Tudor practices (Bonser, 1963, pp. 3-4; Thomas, 1971, pp. 178, 181). Conjurers in England were typically called cunning men, wise women, conjurers or witches, and they could provide folk medicine charms as well as benevolent or malevolent magical invocations (Thomas, 1971, p. 178). In addition, a variety of prominent persons engaged in "hazardous political enterprises" in England, from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries, were reported to have invoked malevolent curses and preventive charms to aid them (Thomas, 1971, p. 232).
The invocation of a malevolent force by piercing a waxen or clay image of the victim with pins and nails is associated with cultures throughout the Mediterranean and northern Europe in classical and later periods (Stearne, 1648, pp. 53-54; Summers, 1970, p. xix). If the image was made of wax, it would often be slowly melted over a fire with the belief that the victim would perish as the wax burned in the flame (Larner, 1984, pp. 9, 14-16; Summers, 1970, p. xix).
European descendants in America also described their use of image magic through the manipulation of photographs or drawn pictures of the victim. German beliefs included the burning of a person's picture, while chanting an invocation charm, to work lethal conjuration (Hand, 1964, p. 109; Hyatt, 1965, p. 810). One could achieve the same result by driving a tack into the area of the heart in the picture (Hyatt, 1965, p. 809). German folklore also included the technique of burning the picture or photo within a small hole in the ground, and covering over the ashes when it was consumed (Hand, 1964, pp. 109-10; Hyatt, 1965, p. 810). An Irish belief included hanging a picture on an oak tree and driving nails into it to inflict injuries (Hand, 1964, p. 109; Hyatt, 1965, p. 810), or placing a picture of the target person upside down with a pitcher of water behind it (Hyatt, 1965, p. 809).
German "powwow doctors" of the Pennsylvania region were also reported to recommend that one work a counter-spell on a witch by making a wood image of the witch, piercing it with nails, and burying it. The body part into which the nail was driven would be injured on the witch, and the witch would be identified by that result and forced to desist from his or her own conjurations (Shaner, 1961a, p. 72). Similarly, German descendants in Pennsylvania used photographs or pictures of a target person, and would shoot at it or pierce it, often using this as a counter-charm against a suspected witch (Yoder, 1962, pp. 31, 32; 1990, p. 251).
European charms based on early Christian referents also included images of the five wounds of Jesus, based upon the piercing of his hands, feet and heart in some accounts of the crucifixion (Yoder, 1990, pp. 81, 100). From this source come images of a heart pierced with a sword or spear, and hands and feet, representative of the nailed extremities of Jesus on the cross (Yoder, 1990, p. 81). Such images would often receive the approval of the Catholic church as viable devotional art (Yoder, 1990, p. 81). This may be the original referent from which metal charms were mass-produced which depicted a hand holding a wire frame with a small stone inset in that wire frame. Such charms were available as watch charms in the nineteenth century from retailers such as Sears Roebuck (Israel, 1968, p. 419). This may provide an alternative interpretation of the initial function of the small brass hand amulets discovered at the Hermitage plantation and attributed to African American conjuration (McKee, 1995; Orser, 1994, pp. 39-40; Russell, 1997).
Small images of human anatomy were also used as votive offerings to Catholic saints. These votives often included small images of different body parts in silver or wax. The image depicted the part of the body for which a cure was sought (Merrifield, 1988, pp. 88-93). This practice is depicted in a fifteenth century wood print of St. Anthony, and examples have been recovered from the fifteenth century tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey in Exeter. Such votive offerings have been used in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches to the present (Merrifield, 1988, pp. 88-90).
Thomas found the use of such image magic to be the "most common maleficent technique" used in England (1971, pp. 513-14, 544). The frequent occurrence of malevolent conjuration, including the use of wax or clay images, is evident in defamation lawsuits recorded in seventeenth century English courts, in which allegations of malevolent magic were under dispute. Yet, this is conjuration of a largely mundane form, which does not involve persons allegedly having a union with the Devil: "These cases are the best evidence at a popular level, both for the prevalence of witch-beliefs, and for their essentially traditional nature" (Thomas, 1971, p. 446). Christina Larner's studies of witchcraft in Scotland and England led her to the same conclusion, that "[s]imple maleficium" was "the staple diet" even in most court cases, and demonic possession was less frequently alleged (1984, p. 18). Similarly, small effigies of sticks and cloth have been recovered in seventeenth century New England house sites, in contexts suggesting their use as image magic (St. George, 1998, pp. 186-90).
Counter-sorcery was also practiced in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is a retaliatory action by a victim against the suspected witch who had already worked a curse on the victim. The victim could obtain an article of clothing or personal property of the witch and burn it in a ritual manner (Larner, 1984, p. 134). Witch-bottles were an interesting form of counter-sorcery utilized in England and by English settlers in the American colonies. They believed that the witch-bottle would ward off a witch who had begun working a curse on a victim. The victim would often use a stoneware bellarmine bottle for this curse, and fill it with pins or iron nails, and also parings of the victim's fingernails, toenails and their urine. This charm was based on the logic that a witch had already created a mystical link between witch and victim, and this link could be reversed and the witch forced to break it or suffer pain or death. The victim's urine was a key component of this link, since it contained "part of the vital spirit of the Witch in it" due to the witch having worked a conjuration on the victim's physical being (Blagrave, 1671, p. 155, quoted in Merrifield, 1988, p. 170).
The victim would bury the bottle under or near the hearth of his house, and the heat of the hearth would animate the pins or iron nails and force the witch to break the link or suffer the consequences. Placement near the hearth and chimney expressed associated beliefs that witches often gained access to homes through deviant paths such as the chimney stack (Johnson, 1996, pp. 160-62; Merrifield, 1988, pp. 163-72; St. George, 1998, pp. 192-95).
Ralph Merrifield finds antecedents to this technique of using heat in the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, which recommends applying heat to a pail of spoiled milk or the intestines of livestock killed by a witch's curse. The fire would burn and injure the offending witch (Merrifield, 1988, p. 173; Summers, 1970, pp. 155, 163). Another motif was to include a cloth figure of a heart in the bottle, and to pierce that cloth with some of the pins and nails. Some bottles are also found to include thorns.
Dozens of witch-bottles, using bellarmine, plain stoneware and glass bottles, have been uncovered archaeologically at sites in England dating from the seventeenth century through 1900. Some were located near hearths, others were buried in the ground near house sites. The array of contents described above has also been demonstrated archaeologically (Merrifield, 1988, pp. 163-71, 180-82). Similar witch bottles, using glass containers, been recovered archaeologically from Anglo-American sites in Princess Anne County, Virginia (dating from 1700-1750) and near the Delaware River in Essington, Pennsylvania (dating from 1740-1750) (Becker, 1978, 1980; Painter, 1980).
Written charms were also used in England. While charms consisting of religious prayers could be chanted, they were also written down and worn in amulets, even by wearers who were illiterate. Such charms usually consisted of pre-Reformation prayers, such as paternosters, aves and creeds. Another common technique was to write the charm prayer three times on a paper, then burn the paper in a ritual manner. The conjuration aspect was apparent by the fact that the target person was often illiterate (Larner, 1984, pp. 146-47).
A magic square of "rotas" or "sator" is a prominent form of written charm practiced by English and German descendants alike. It originated in Roman sites, with two examples from Pompeii dating before AD 79 (Merrifield, 1988, pp. 142-43). The charm is created by writing or inscribing a palindrome square of five-letter words in Latin as follows:
|R O T A S|
|O P E R A|
|T E N E T|
|A R E P O|
|S A T O R|
A rich and well-documented tradition of using sacred Latin words exists among Germans who settled in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Ohio Valley regions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The magic square of "sator" was used by German settlers, and examples written on paper have been uncovered in dwelling houses ( Shaner, 1961b; Yoder, 1990, p. 96; 1965, p. 46). Use of epigrams including the Latin initials INRI in geometric patterns are also frequent (Shaner, 1961b, p. 63; Yoder, 1990, p. 81; 1965, p. 46). The Latin initials INRI stand for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," which appeared, according to Biblical accounts, on a placard nailed to the cross by those who crucified Christ. In contrast, no references have been found within these German American traditions to use of the Greek letter Chi, which could be written as an initial for the name of Christ, as in "Xmas." German settlers in the Pennsylvania region were known, however, to use an X insignia on fence posts or walls to ward off evil spirits (Smith et al., 1964, p. 156).
German descendants also used sacred Latin texts derived from the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, John George Hohman's 1820 Long Lost Friend, Albert Magnus or the Egyptian Secrets, and Romanus (Shaner, 1961b, p. 63; Wust, 1969, pp. 182-83; Yoder, 1990, pp. 90, 99). Powwow doctors would also provide cures to patients by giving them a piece of paper with a written charm, instructing the patient to carry the charm in a pocket (Yoder, 1962, p. 36; 1990, p. 264). Such written charms, whether benevolent or malevolent, typically included the target person's name (Yoder, 1966, p. 40).
These are compelling forms of expression in relation to the skull found in Loudoun. The combination of an X symbol and the initials on the Loudoun skull could have served as a lethal curse or counter-charm, with the R and S on the skull figure invoking the sacred Latin text charms, and the H and D identifying the person targeted (perhaps Harry or Mahlon Demery). The symbol of the skull, and burial of the object near the target person, would have invoked the symbolism of death and fear of death.
In view of this evidence, one could interpret this artifact as a conjure item created by someone who practiced conjuration methods most closely associated with persons of German American heritage in this region and time period. The Demery surname is primarily of Anglo-American heritage. While comparable traditions of conjuration existed among the English, there is greater evidence of the use of X symbols and the geometric patterning of initials for Latin words within the German American traditions.
One could interpret the currently available evidence as indicating that the Demery family had been in some close social interaction with persons of German heritage. The Demerys may have learned the design and building techniques utilized in constructing their house from such German American neighbors. Alternatively, the Demerys may have sub-leased the land to a German family who in turn built the house and then moved to another home site when the Demerys took occupancy. A member of that same group may have later targeted Harry or Mahlon Demery with this conjure item due to a subsequent dispute. If so, information maintained within one group's folk religion may have been utilized across ethnic boundaries, but in a clandestine manner which would have played no role in intergroup communication of ethnic boundedness.
Examination of the possible belief systems which may have produced the skull artifact from Loudoun County illustrates the remarkable degree of commonality among Anglo-American, German American and African American conjuration traditions in this region and time period. Concepts of ethnic markers thus become highly problematic. Could the material culture of past conjuration traditions have functioned to promote and mark ethnic identities? This question requires consideration of three intersecting bodies of theory concerning the character of ethnic groups, the uses of material culture to signal ethnic group identities and boundaries, and the ways in which conjuration beliefs and practices may have served to promote, subvert or signal ethnic group identities and solidarity.
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