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Parting Ways

In Small Things Forgotten:
An Archaeology of Early American Life

© 1996 Copyright and All Rights Reserved by James F. Deetz
(New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday 1996; expanded and revised edition).
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Parting Ways (Chapter 7, pp. 187-211)

Cato Howe is not a name we will find in our history books. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill beside the other troops commanded by Colonel Prescott, but since he was but one of a large army, he shares his anonymity with all the other foot soldiers who have served their country's cause in countless battles from Lexington to Danang. Like them, he returned home after his release from the Army and lived out his life in a modest way. But Cato was different from most of his contemporaries both in the military and at home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Cato Howe was black.

If archaeology is a vital contributor to our understanding of all of America's common folk, and what their life meant to them, it is doubly so in the case of our understanding of the black experience in America. Prior to the various emancipation actions, beginning in Massachusetts in 1783 and continuing into the nineteenth century, blacks

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were chattels, property to be disposed of in any way their owners saw fit. People who held such a status could hardly be expected to have recorded a history of their own in any conventional way, although the strength of oral tradition has preserved more than we might hope. Piecing together black history on a local level is a fascinating and often frustrating process of assembling fragments to form a coherent whole. To gain a true understanding of the story of a people, it is best to detail a picture of their life within a community and then relate that to the larger world. It is in this process that archaeology can contribute in a significant way.

Our knowledge of Cato Howe and his fellow blacks of Plymouth comes from two sources: Fragmentary written records give us a partial picture, lacking in important details. A complementary body of information has been gained by excavating the site of the tiny community in which Cato Howe lived until his death, in 1824. The site of this community is known today as Parting Ways, named for a fork in the road leading from Plymouth to Plympton in one direction and Carver in the other. At the time of its occupation by at least four black families, it was called New Guinea, a fairly common term used over much of Anglo-America for separate black settlements.

Nothing is known of Cato Howe's early life, before his military service. There are references to a Cato in inventories prior to that date, since slaves were included with other taxable property. But Cato was a common slave name, and it is impossible to determine if any of these

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individuals was the same person. It is a near certainty that he was a slave prior to the Revolution, and along with the other 572 blacks who served in Massachusetts armies, he was given his freedom in 1778 in return for his service. He enlisted as a private in Colonel John Bailey's regiment, and was discharged in 1783. These facts are provided by his military records. Upon returning to Plymouth, Howe probably found himself in the same straits as his fellow blacks who had been given their freedom. While the state saw to it that these people were free, it did little or nothing to provide for their new needs, and subsistence, employment, and housing were difficult to come by. We know nothing of his activities or whereabouts until 1792. In that year, on March 12, the town of Plymouth "voted and granted a strip of land about twenty rods wide and about a mile and a half long on the easterly side of the sheep pasture, to such persons as will clear the same in the term of three years." "Such person" was Cato Howe, and joined by three others -- Prince Goodwin, Plato Turner, and Quamany -- they established a tiny community on the property. Howe lived out his life on the property. He and the other three men are buried there, where their graves can be seen today, marked by simple field stones. His life at Parting Ways seems to have been a difficult one. In 1818 he applied to the government for a pension, based on reduced circumstances. The pension was granted, and in 1820 he apparently was asked to prove that he had not purposely reduced his circumstances to qualify for the support. His personal property at that time was listed as follows:

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Real Estate: None.

Personal Property: 1 cow, 1 pig, 5 chairs, 1 table, 2 kettles, 3 knives and forks, 3 plates, 2 bowls, ax, hoe.

Total Value: 27 dollars.

He stated his occupation as farmer in his deposition. If so, wresting a living from the land where he lived was a taxing job. Today, over a century later, the soil on this tract of land is gravelly and singularly unfertile. To complicate matters even further, he was troubled with rheumatism, and his bedridden wife, Althea, was seventy years old and unable to feed herself. Both had been given assistance by the town before he received his federal pension. Although it is not recorded, Althea Howe must have died shortly thereafter, since Cato married Lucy Prettison of Plymouth in 1821. Three years later, he died, and his estate was probated. His inventory has survived, and attests to his most modest circumstances, as follows:

1 Fire Shovel 8¢ 1 Table 20¢ 1 Table 100 3 Chests $2.12 1/22.50 1/2
4 Chairs $1 Bed, Bedstead and bedding $5.806.80
1 Spinning Wheel 25¢ 1 pr. Handirons 50¢ 1 Iron Kettle 50¢ 1.25
1 Iron Pot $1 1 Dish Kettle 20¢ 1 Tea Kettle 30¢ 1 Spider 20¢1.70
2 Lamps 12 1/2¢ Tin Ware 25¢ Wooden Ware 25¢ 6 Junk Bottles 30¢ .92 1/2
1 Coffee Mill 12 1/2¢ 1 Mortar 12 1/2¢ Knives, forks, spoons 17¢ .42
1 Flat Iron 20¢ 1 Skillet 15¢ Family pictures 12 1/2¢ .47 1/2
1 Ax 50¢ Crockery and Glass Ware in cupboard $4 Wash Tub 25¢ 4.75
1 Rooster Cock 20¢ 4 Hens 80¢1.00
1 Dwelling House $15 1 Barn $15 1 Cow $1242.00
61.82 1/2

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After Cato's death, his wife remarried and moved to Boston.

Were it not for Howe's having served in the Continental Army, we would know hardly a thing about him. Except for his inventory and the town's granting him permission to settle on their land, all our knowledge of him comes from military-related records. Even less is known about the three men who were his neighbors in the little community of New Guinea. Had they not also been in the Army, we would know less still. Quamany enlisted at age seventeen and was discharged in 1783. Like Cato, he applied for a pension. Denied it in 1818, he finally received it in 1820, when his guardian, Nathan Hayward, stated that he was incapable of taking an oath, that he was without

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property, and that he, his wife Ellen, and their two sons were supported by the town of Plymouth. His occupation was listed as laborer. Quamany received his pension of eight dollars monthly. He died in 1833.

Prince Goodwin is the only one of the four whose life before the war is indicated in any way. He was a slave, owned first by Dr. William Thomas and then by his son, judge Joshua Thomas. He spent only three months in the military and, deserting in 1777, did not receive his freedom, as did the others in 1778. He apparently returned to the Thomas household, since he stayed on as a servant to the judge's widow, and apparently divided his time between New Guinea and the Thomas household. He was married and the father of five children, but there is no record of his death.

Like Howe and Quamany, Plato Turner served in the Army until 1783 and applied for a pension in 1818. We learn little else about him from written records, save that his death is listed in the Plymouth church records in 1819. He was survived by his widow, Rachel.

The ninety-four acres of land on which these four men lived were provisionally granted to Cato Howe in 1792, although there is no record of an outright grant of title to him. The four men cleared the property, built houses, and resided there with the town's permission until 1824. By that time, both Howe and Turner had died. The town authorized the sale of the property in that year, referring to it as land "recently held by Cato Howe, deceased" and "formerly occupied by Prince, man of color." A map

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drawn by the town clerk in 1840 shows each man's parcel as he had cleared it, and located "Quam's house," even though Quamany had been dead for seven years. Even later, the 1857 map of Plymouth places a "Quam" in the same location in 1840 and a J. Turner also residing on the property. Quam is also on the 1879 Plymouth map, and a "Burr" house is shown at Parting Ways. From this cartographic evidence, there seems a strong possibility that although the town authorized the land's sale in 1824 and explicitly stated that it was formerly held by the four men, they and their families were in some way allowed to live there longer. The land was not sold -- small wonder, in view of its poor quality -- and remains to this day the property of the town.

In 1975 an archaeological investigation of the Parting Ways community was begun. Renewed interest in the tiny community and its inhabitants had been generated by a special town bicentennial committee on black history, and this group's efforts at first were directed at the cemetery. Its location had not been lost over the years, and as a part of the town's bicentennial program, volunteer groups landscaped the area. At the same time, the committee sought and obtained a vote at Plymouth town meeting to set the land aside for memorial purposes, including the area of the Parting Ways settlement. It was in this area that archaeological excavations were carried out.

If we were to rely only on the documentary sources for our knowledge of the life of the four men who lived at Parting Ways, we would have little on which to proceed.

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The information summarized above is all we know. For this reason, the archaeological dimension of the study of the community assumes a much greater significance. In some respects, such investigations take on some of the aspects of prehistoric archaeology, since so little is forthcoming from the historical record. After two seasons of excavation, a whole new set of facts about Parting Ways had been obtained, facts that in many ways place a somewhat different perspective on the simple lives of Cato Howe, Plato Turner, Prince Goodwin, and Quamany.

When the site was first visited, the area later shown to have been the main center of occupation was grassy, with an occasional locust tree, in contrast to the scrub pine and oak that covered the remaining original ninety-four acres. There was only one visible feature, a large cellar hole heavily overgrown with brush. Initial excavations were directed at this feature and a slight depression in the ground a short distance away.

The open cellar hole had all of the appearances of having had a house standing over it in the not too distant past. There was a strong likelihood that it marked the location of the house of the last known inhabitant of the site, James Burr. Burr is known to have lived there in 1895, when a sketch of his life was published in the Boston Globe. Burr had an interesting life. He was born and educated in Boston. As a servant to a congressman, he lived in Washington and traveled to England. He later returned to Boston, where he worked as a barber, and in 1861 he moved to Plymouth and settled at Parting Ways. His reason for this

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move was that he desired to live near his ancestor's grave. Plato Turner was James Burr's grandfather.

Figure 13. Turner-Burr House, Parting Ways, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Click to View More Illustrations

This information agrees with the location of a Burr house on the 1879 Plymouth map. Still there in 1895, at the time of the Globe article, the house stood until the early years of the twentieth century. In all probability, the cellar hole was of that house, but it was not until two informants came forth with new information that such an association could be proved. In the August heat of 1975, an elderly couple visited the site while digging was in progress. The man was ninety-one years old and remembered walking past the house as a child; this was in the last years of the nineteenth century. When the Globe article was written, Burr lived at the site with his widowed cousin Rachael and her three sons. The informant remembered a lady living there known as Rachael Johnson, her proper married

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name. This piece of oral history established the cellar as that of James Burr. Later, a photograph of the house was found in the archives of the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth. The house has a small central chimney, and with its shingled exterior and six-over-six windows, looks not unlike any simple vernacular house of the nineteenth century (see Figure 13). Archaeology was to demonstrate that the exterior appearance was deceptive and that it differed from its Anglo-American counterparts in a rather dramatic way.

When excavations were completed on the Burr cellar and in the depressed area nearby, a clear and intriguing set of architectural features had been revealed. The site had never been disturbed by cultivation or other earth removal since it was lived on. As a result, both the focus and the visibility of the features were excellent. The Burr house had been built in two stages, separated by perhaps as much as thirty years. The initial construction had taken place long before Burr moved to the site, and in view of the relationship between the two men, it may have been done by Burr's grandfather, Plato Turner. This first, small structure was twelve feet square, as evidenced by perfectly preserved stone footings. These footings stood on an intentionally mounded earth platform. Artifacts in the fill of this feature and in the trenches that held the footings all point to a construction date at the turn of the nineteenth century, with creamware and pearlware fragments providing the most precise dating evidence. These footings immediately abutted the cellar, and the cellar was beneath a second room, producing an overall ground plan of two contiguous

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rooms, each twelve feet square. However, the cellar was not added to the initial structure until much later, since no early artifacts were found in association with it and the scant pottery sample it produced dates to the later nineteenth century. The most reasonable explanation of this feature is that the first build was made at about the time the land was first occupied by the four men and that, much later, James Burr enlarged it and added a cellar. Whether he lived for a time in the smaller building, or remodeled it upon moving to Plymouth, is unknown. But the evidence for a two-period construction is quite clear and sufficient. The enlarged house is the one seen in the photograph.

Both sections of the footing showed extensive evidence of fire. Melted window glass, heavy charcoal and ash deposits, and large numbers of nails all attest to the house's having burned in place. A second informant, interviewed in 1976, said that he had used the area to pasture cattle and knew it quite well. He stated that the house burned in 1908. On the other hand, yet another informant recalls visiting Rachael's son Jesse, in a house measuring approximately fourteen by twenty feet, "around the time of the First World War." Also, he stated that this house was later moved to Plympton. Is this the same house? It seems unlikely that it is, since the Burr house is known from archaeological evidence to have burned. If it is not the same house, then somewhere in the area, as yet undiscovered, is a feature that is the remains of Jesse's dwelling. Such a seeming conflict is not at all uncommon when dealing with informants, and the discrepancy is mentioned to illustrate

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that complete agreement among all sources is rare indeed. As we have said, however, such a lack of fit serves as a warning that further attempts must be made to bring all of the information into reasonable concordance.

Test excavations in the shallow depression nearby produced a sample of pottery all dating to the main period of occupation of the site, from circa 1790 through circa 1840. When these excavations were enlarged, the depression was found to be the location of another cellar. When completely exposed, mapped, and measured, it was a rather puzzling feature. Extensive excavations in the area surrounding the cellar failed to produce any evidence of footing trenches, post alignments, or any other sign of the building that had originally stood over it. Like the Burr footings and cellar, this cellar, too, was twelve feet square. An external bulkhead entrance had originally led into it, but, at some later date, that had been walled in. Two of the cellar walls were of dry-laid field stone, and two others had been covered with boards. This second cellar was filled with refuse and stone. The artifacts in this fill suggest an occupation date during the first half of the nineteenth century, essentially in agreement with the historical record.

We have seen previously that the mean ceramic date for the fill of this cellar is not in agreement with either the known period of occupation or with the terminus post quem provided by a stoneware jar known to have been made in Taunton, Massachusetts, at the Ingalls Pottery during the 1840s. The explanation for this discrepancy, that the pottery owned by the occupants of the site was acquired second-hand,

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is most reasonable. A more striking aspect of this pottery is its very high quality. Types such as handpainted creamware are not often encountered on New England sites representing people of average means. We might guess that not only was the pottery given to the people of Parting Ways by the townspeople of Plymouth, but it was given by the wealthier ones. Might it not be that the ceramics were provided the men by, their former masters? After all, ownership of slaves and the more elegant kinds of dishes are both characteristic of the more elite members of a community. The presence of the kind of pottery normally seen as an indicator of high status on a site occupied by pensioners receiving eight dollars a month should serve as a caveat to those who would uncritically use such a single piece of evidence to support a point.

It was while this cellar was being excavated that a discovery was made that raised a number of important questions about the site and its inhabitants. Broken on the cellar floor were two large earthenware jars unlike any before encountered on a New England historical site. Eighteen inches tall, of red, unglazed, well-fired clay, their shape and physical characteristics immediately set them apart from the entire Anglo-American ceramic tradition. These jars were made in the West Indies, and served as sugar containers for shipment to various colonial ports. They are also said to have been used at times for storing and shipping tamarind, a West African cultivated fruit that was grown in the West Indies. By a striking coincidence, during the same season as the Parting Ways dig and again a

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year later, similar vessels came to light. At least four were found in a contemporary trash pit in Salem, Massachusetts, and one came from a site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their initial discovery at Parting Ways suggests that they might well relate to the African and West Indian background of the people who lived there. In the New Hampshire case, there were blacks living in the household represented by the site. And of course Salem was an important port town in the nineteenth century, dealing in a wide range of West Indian commodities.

How the Parting Ways people came by these jars will never be known; they may have possessed them before moving onto the property or received them, with or without contents, later. But their discovery raised an important issue that bears on any African American site and its interpretation: What degree of African cultural survival can be detected and described when dealing with the material remains of African Americans at an earlier time in the country's history? It would be the height of ethnocentric arrogance to assume that people recently a part of a very different culture would, upon coming to America, immediately adopt an Anglo-American set of values, of ways of doing things, and of organizing their existence. The misleading factor in this case is that the materials with which they were forced to work were the same, for the most part, as those available to the dominant culture which surrounded them. Again we see a strong parallel with Language, in this case one that draws on comparable data. In the West Indies, blacks speak hybrid languages known as

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Creole languages. Haitian Creole incorporates a French vocabulary, while Dominican Creole employs a modified English vocabulary. But the two share not lexicon but grammar, which in both instances is West African. The same rules are used to assemble the words of two Indo-European languages. Similarly, an Anglo-American set of rules for folk house building can govern the combination of a diverse set of stylistic elements. So it is that while the artifacts available to the members of the Parting Ways settlement were of necessity almost entirely Anglo-American, the rules by which they were put to use in functional combinations might have been more African American. With this possibility in mind, we can look at the material dug from the ground at Parting Ways in a new and potentially more useful way.

In addition to the Burr house and the separate cellar, a third architectural feature was unearthed. Near the second cellar, another depression indicated the remains of some earlier structure. Upon excavation, it was found to be a rectangular pit, roughly eighteen inches deep, measuring twelve feet by nine. Postholes were evident at two of the four corners and at the midpoint of each long side. On the dirt floor were traces of mud walling. The structure that had stood there may not have been a dwelling house, but it seems to have been fairly substantial. Mud-wall-and-post construction is reminiscent of West African building methods, although it did occur in the Anglo-American tradition at an earlier time.

The architecture at Parting Ways provides us with the

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first suggestion that an African American mind-set was at work. One measurement runs through all of the excavated structural remains, that of a basic twelve-foot dimension. We have seen that sixteen feet is the Anglo-American standard. At this site, a twelve-foot unit appears to have been used in the same fashion. The Burr house is made up of two twelve-foot modules. The second cellar may actually be the entire footings for a small structure identical to the first build at the Burr house. However, to suggest the use of tiny, twelve-foot-square dwelling houses at Parting Ways in its early occupation, raises the question of a heat source, since no archaeological evidence of fireplaces was found. Yet, even though the photograph of the Burr house shows a small chimney projecting from the roof, there was neither evidence nor space for a hearth and chimney of the sort seen in American houses of the period. Lacking such evidence, it is difficult to determine how the chimney was supported and what general sort of stove or fireplace was employed. But the negative evidence is strong, so there had to be some accommodation for one within the building.

We might suggest that the difference between twelve and sixteen feet is slight, within the range of normal variation. To be sure, there are Anglo-American houses even smaller than twelve feet in one direction, as witness the John Alden foundation of 1630. However, this latter building was quite long, so that the amount of square footage available is almost identical to that observed in the twentyfoot-square Allerton foundation plan. The difference in square footage in a twelve-foot square as opposed to a

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sixteen-foot square is appreciable, 144 in one case and 256 in the other. This is critical if we are thinking of space in terms of the proxemic relationship between it and its occupants. Yet, if it could be shown that the twelve-foot unit is more broadly characteristic of African American building, a much stronger case could be made. Happily, such a relationship can be clearly demonstrated.

In an article on the shotgun house, John Vlach compares these houses in the American South with those of Haiti, and both with West African house types.(1) The shotgun house is acknowledged as a true African American architectural form. Not only does the Burr house plan conform to the ground plans of shotgun houses, the dimensions are remarkably similar. Beyond this, there are differences. Shotgun houses have end doorways and distinctive windows, while the photograph of the Burr house shows a rather typical New England exterior. Again we see a case of using the material available but arranging it in a way that subtly and more deeply reflects the maker's cultural roots. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy calls the shotgun house an architecture of defiance, in that it is a case of blacks stating their heritage through their building tradition in the face of the dominant culture.(2) The little houses at Parting Ways were probably no less, yet because of the poverty of their builders and the scarcity of material, perhaps the statement was not as blatantly made.

Other aspects of the Parting Ways community show the same differences, albeit not as clearly as the building forms. The settlement pattern, in which all four men

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appear to have placed their dwellings in the center of the ninety-four acres, might be a significant difference from their Yankee contemporaries. While it may be that they formed a close community simply for mutual reassurance, it is equally likely that the placement of the houses reflects a more corporate spirit than four Anglo-Americans might show in similar circumstances. At the time of the community's formation, the usual pattern of Anglo-American house placement was a scattered one, each family on its own property. Although the town clerk's map explicitly designates discrete portions of the ninety-four acres as having been cleared by each of the four men, they still placed their houses close to one another. Burr's house was probably Plato Turner's. The other cellar has not- been clearly identified with any of the four, yet we know that Quamany's house stood just across the road. Since Goodwin spent only a part of his time in the settlement, there is a good chance that the other cellar was Cato Howe's originally. However, he died in 1824 and the cellar was not filled until 1850, presumably at the time the house was either razed or moved. Both archaeological and documentary evidence indicate a continued occupation, perhaps uninterrupted until the twentieth century. But throughout that time, occupation seems to have been concentrated in a small area on the ninety-four-acre tract.

Another striking difference from contemporary Anglo-American sites is seen in the food remains recovered from the Parting Ways site. We have seen that sawing of bone, as opposed to chopping it, appears sometime in the

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later eighteenth century. No sawed bone was recovered from the site, although one would normally expect all of it to be so cut. It may be the poverty in which the inhabitants lived that is shown by the large number of cow's feet, which make up the majority of the animal bone found. Such parts were of little value to Anglo-Americans, although they could be cooked to yield nourishment. On the other hand, we must not overlook the possibility that these bones might reflect in part a different cuisine, as might the chopped bones from larger cuts of meat. In any case, the animal bone from Parting Ways in no way conforms to that seen on similar sites occupied by Anglo-Americans.

Parting Ways is a very special site, in that it was occupied by at least three families of African Americans who were free of those constraints which might have been imposed on them under the institution of slavery. However marginal they may have seemed to the dominant European community, they were able to organize their world on their own terms from the late eighteenth century onward. Such conditions did not prevail in the Plantation South, where the yoke of slavery was not removed until the time of the Civil War. And while African Americans on all of the plantations coped with the harshness of their condition, they did so in different and often covert ways. It is perhaps due to this difference that the Parting Ways residents left us with a subtle yet clear material statement of their way of organizing their lives. Each constituent element of the archaeological record from Parting Ways, taken alone, is not totally convincing, although powerfully suggestive. But

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taken as a group, as an expression of African American culture as it was to be seen in early-nineteenth-century Massachusetts, they are indeed compelling, an expression of a worldview not only different from that of the dominant European American culture, but coherent in its own right, attributable to the African heritage shared by Cato, Plato, Quamany, and their families.

Prior to the excavations at Parting Ways in 1975 and 1976, the site was known only as the location of a tiny cemetery which was said to mark the graves of at least some of the inhabitants. A sign at the side of the road informs the reader that:


PLATO           CATO

The cemetery is located in the original 94 acre plot of
land which was deeded to them by the government when
they were given their freedom.

The few markers in the cemetery are but the broken stumps of what had been modest green slate gravestones, their inscriptions and designs long since vanished. A discovery made in 1978 not only calls into question the identity of the occupants of the graves, but adds yet one more dimension to the nature of the cultural heritage of the

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Parting Ways residents, in this case a somewhat enigmatic but dramatic one.

As part of a more extensive survey of the original ninety-four acres for National Register nomination, a large area paved with fieldstone was discovered, just across the road from the original settlement.(3) As is customary with such surveys, excavation at that location was very limited, involving a single test trench fifteen feet long and two and a half feet wide. But excavations were not required to determine the nature of the feature; it was only necessary to remove the thin layer of leaves which had covered it over the years. What came to light was an area some twenty-five by forty-five feet in extent, covered evenly with closely packed cobbles. The southern and western edges of the paving were not sharply defined, but the eastern edge was much more distinct. The northern edge had been obliterated by the widening of the road in 1950. Almost seven thousand artifacts were found atop the paving, and for the most part were concentrated in two discrete areas. The vast majority of these artifacts were fragments of pottery, but there were pieces of shattered glassware as well. All had been intentionally broken on the spot, and as a result most could be partially or fully reconstructed. The pattern that emerged was one that called for comparisons with that associated with African American ritual practices and their West African roots. The two concentrations differed from each other. The more northerly one consisted of two sugar jars, a stoneware jug, miscellaneous pressed glass objects,

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and a variety of bottles. One of the sugar jars had a hole broken through the base. The second concentration consisted of English white earthenware and a few glass objects. Both concentrations produced a terminus post quem in the 1840s. Except for a few pieces of window glass, two nails, and two bricks, no architectural materials were found, and bone or shell was also lacking. Clearly, these concentrations were not the result of domestic trash disposal, nor was the paving in any way the remains of a building of any kind. This negative evidence, combined with the fact that the objects were broken in place, all points to both an intentional construction of the paved area and the placing and breaking of ceramic and glass objects on it in two discrete areas. Such a pattern has a striking parallel to grave decoration practices as they are known from the American South.

Throughout this area, African American graves are ornamented in a distinctive fashion. In Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner perhaps summed this up most succinctly:

. . . the grave, save for its rawness, resembled any other marked off without order about the barren plot by shards of pottery and broken bottles and old brick and other objects insignificant to sight but actually of a profound meaning and fatal to touch, which no white man could have read.(4)

John Vlach tells us that there is a clear pattern in the types of objects used by African Americans to decorate graves.(5) Bottles and jars predominate, sometimes broken in

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such a way that they appear to be whole. This was often accomplished by breaking a hole in the bottom, invisible when the object is set upright on the grave. Such breakage could be seen to be done to prevent theft, but Vlach cites extensive evidence that such is not the case, since the community will not disturb grave offerings, even coins, as a result of customs which had their origin in the African past. Similar grave ornamentation is known from all of West and Central Africa, where, as in America, graves and their decorations are seen as inviolate, not to be stolen from. Two themes seem to unite the American and African practices, white objects and objects associated with water. A widespread African system of belief holds not only that the spirits of the dead are white beings, but they reside beneath the water. The connections between African and Southern African American grave decoration are clear and explicit. The extent to which both are related to the paved area at Parting Ways is only slightly less so. True, it is not known whether they mark the location of burials, although it seems very likely that they do. John Vlach, who visited the site in the fall of 1978, commented that whether they marked graves or not, they bore a very strong resemblance to the ritual compounds of the Akan of Ghana. Furthermore, they force us to question the identity of those individuals buried beneath the stumps of green slate gravestones in the cemetery always traditionally identified with the Parting Ways settlement. Given the dates of death of the occupants of Parting Ways, it is most unlikely that their gravestones would have been made of slate, marble having

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long since replaced slate as the universal material for gravestones. Furthermore, the cemetery at Plympton, a few miles away, has one eighteenth-century cenotaph commemorating people who had died of smallpox and been buried elsewhere. Several small groups of green slate stones, three or four in number, are to be found in the woods around Plympton, marking the graves of smallpox victims, and it seems very likely that the Parting Ways cemetery is but one more of these.

Of course the Parting Ways site does not reflect the changes we have suggested for Anglo-American culture change, nor should it. Yet in its not fitting this pattern, it reinforces it, since it serves to draw a line beyond which explanation cannot and should not proceed. It tells us that such patterns are applicable only to the remains of a single cultural tradition, and once outside that tradition, other rules apply. During the digging of the Parting Ways site, this difference was brought home again and again when certain implicit assumptions based on our experience in Anglo-American sites did not work out. A large amount of dirt was moved in the name of solving this and that problem formulated from prior experience, and nothing came to light. The occupants of the site constructed their houses differently, disposed of their trash differently, arranged their community differently. But because the artifacts themselves were so familiar to us, the essential differences were disguised behind them, and only when a more basic consideration of different perceptions of the world was made did the picture come into focus.

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African American archaeology has become an important and vital component of historical archaeology in the United States. Since the artifactual and architectural remains of these communities are a better index of the life of African Americans in their own terms, they hold great promise of supplementing American black history in a different and important way. Cato Howe, Plato Turner, Quamany, and Prince Goodwin seem like simple folk living in abject poverty when we learn of them from the documents. The archaeology tells us that in spite of their lowly station in life, they were the bearers of a lifestyle, distinctly their own, neither recognized nor understood by their chroniclers.

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The African American Past (excerpt from Chapter 8)

* * * * *

. . . . We have suggested that the inhabitants of Parting Ways, slaves who had been given their freedom and were thus able to express themselves through their material world, did so in such a way that their African heritage surfaced one more time. The ground plan of the Turner-Burr house shows rooms with dimensions close to those of both shotgun houses and earlier slave houses in South Carolina. The layout of the house differs from those of shotgun houses in the placement of the entrance, which we know from a photograph to have been on the long side of the building. This entry location is likely derived from the dominant, non-African architectural tradition of the region, but we must not discount another possibility. A house with two small rooms, entered from the side, is the basic form over much of West Africa. In addition, John Vlach writes:

The Yoruba architectural repertoire is quite extensive, ranging from common houses to palaces. But despite the variety, all of the buildings are based on a two-room module which measures ten by twenty feet . . . . This two-room house is essential to the Yoruba architectural system, and consequently wasnot easily forgotten even under the rigors of slavery.(8)
Whatever the case, the Turner-Burr house more closely resembles a Yoruba two-room side-entrance building than it does either an Anglo-American house or a shotgun house, and this similarity may well be more than coincidental. The main difference is in the construction material, frame on the one hand and mud on the other. The remains of one mud-walled building were uncovered at Parting Ways, the little nine-by-twelve-foot structure near one of the cellars. This feature in turn is reminiscent of earlier slave houses in South Carolina.

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Small Things Forgotten (excerpt from Chap. 9)

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In our world today, other lessons gained from thinking about artifacts might be applicable. The little community of Parting Ways was probably seen by its contemporaries as simply a collection of houses occupied by people who for all intents and purposes were little different from them except for their station in life. Yet America was not a melting pot in the eighteenth century, and it is not one today. In their own way, the black settlers of Parting Ways maintained their cultural heritage in the face of adversity. And today people whose history has not been a part of the Anglo-American past hold similar cultural treasures in trust. We are not usually conscious of these other patterns, for our own culture is an awesome presence, but they are there.

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Notes for Parting Ways, Chapter 7

1. John Vlach, "Shotgun Houses," Natural History, Vol. 87, no. 2 (1977), pp. 50-57.

2. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Autonomous Architecture (New York: Horizon Press, 1957), p. 120.

3. The following discussion is based on work done under the direction of Marley Brown III and presented by Constance Crosby and Matthew C. Emerson in a paper, "Identifying Afro-American Mortuary Customs: An Example from Parting Ways Settlement, Plymouth, Massachusetts," at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology held in Nashville, Tennessee, in January 1979.

4. William Faulkner, Go Down Moses (New York: Random House, 1955), p. 135. Quoted by John Vlach in The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), p. 139.

5. John Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, p. 141.

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Note for The African American Past, Chapter 8

8. John Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, p. 125.

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