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Levi Jordan

On the Curer's Cabin

By Kenneth L. Brown

Excerpted from "Material Culture and Community Structure: The Slave and Tenant Community at Levi Jordan's Plantation, 1848-1892." (2).

See also the interview with Ken in which he discusses how this deposit was interpreted. There are pictures inserted in that text.

Ken Brown supervising students while excavating the "Curer's Cabin"

The community-wide function of one of the other "high-ranking cabin" occupants appears to have been that of a magician/curer. A majority of the artifacts that formed part of the ritual paraphernalia for the magician/curer date to the rapid abandonment episode, suggesting that some time depth for this activity within the cabin. However, a number of identical artifacts were found within the sub-floor deposits of the cabin. This ritual kit was recovered from a small area of the floor of the cabin, near the southeast corner of the room. It consists of several iron kettle bases; cubes of white chalk; bird skulls; an animal’s paw; two sealed tubes made of bullet casings; ocean shells; small dolls; an extraordinarily high (for this site) number of nails, spikes, knife blades, and "fake" knife blades; small water rolled pebbles, two chipped stone scraping tools; several patent medicine bottles, and a thermometer. While all of these artifacts could have, and likely did, function in other activities during their use-lives, taken together in their depositional context, they suggest a functional group only partly related to the dominant European/American culture. Ethnographic analogies drawn from the West African, Afro-Caribbean, and Creole curing rituals support this functional group as a magician/curer’s or conjurer’s kit. For example, Thompson records the following description of the beginning of a charm ritual: "On the island of Cuba, when Kongo ritual leaders wish to make the important Zarabanda charm…, they begin by tracing, in white chalk, a cruciform pattern on the bottom of an iron kettle" (Thompson 1983) (30) (emphasis mine). Such a pattern was found on a brick placed into the wall of the political leader’s cabin. [This page will include a drawing of the cruciform pattern at a later date).

The cross [cruciform], with its encircling line, is identical to what Thompson refers to as the "Kongo Cosmogram". Archaeologist Leland Ferguson has discovered several slave-made colonoware vessels/vessel fragments with this design on them [Ferguson 1992]. (21) Each was found in or very near a body of water, and Ferguson believes these vessels were important in rituals connected with water and possibly with death. The placement of the cosmogram on a brick within the wall of a cabin suggests that the symbol, as employed with the Americas, has a broader meaning than Ferguson suggests, or that the meaning changed over time to a certain degree. Both ethnographic and archaeological evidence would suggest a broader meaning than that suggested by Ferguson.

The broader meaning of the symbol may be interpreted from excavated contexts within the magician/curer’s cabin. [see the interview with Ken which includes drawings of this deposit]. Placed into the "sub-floor" strata of the cabin were four deposits of artifacts which appear to have functioned within a single context – that of a large cosmogram, and the resulting definition of ritual space. The first of these deposits discovered was the curer’s/magician’s kit, found in the southeastern corner of the cabin. Immediately adjacent to this kit, but likely placed below the floorboards of the cabin, we discovered an extremely large quantity of nails, spikes, real and "fake" knife blades, and small porcelain dolls, which appear to be all that remains in the archaeological record of a wooden Nkisi. This Nkisi likely functioned along with the magician/curer’s kit, patent medicine bottles and the thermometer within the ritual activities conducted. They represent a major portion of the tools utilized in the manipulation of the supernatural world for the benefit and life of members of the community.

The second deposit discovered contained seven coins. This set of coins consisted of four quarters, two dimes, and a half-dime. Thus, all the coins were made of silver. The coins had been wrapped together inside a coarsely woven cloth object. With the exception of a small amount of this cloth actually touching the coins, nearly all of it had decomposed prior to excavation, and therefor it is not possible to determine the size of the original cloth or the type of fiber used to make it. However, the coins had been arranged within the cloth before being placed in a small hole dug into the dirt below the floor. The coins were placed so that they were "standing" in a nearly vertical fashion on their sides. They faced north-south. The coins were also carefully arranged such that the perforated half-dime was on the outside facing south, then came two of the quarters (both dated 1853), then an 1853 dime, and then the two other quarters (both dated 1858).

The third deposit discovered consisted of a wide variety of objects within and surrounding two complete cast iron kettles. The kettles had been placed below the floorboards immediately inside the cabin’s door. The kettles had been positioned one inside the other with a few small metal, ocean shell, glass, and bone fragments placed inside the upper kettle. Approximately three inches of ash was also placed within the kettle. Soil was either placed on top of this ash, or filled the kettle in the years after it was deposited. Finally, a smaller cast iron kettle was broken up and placed over the top of these two. This broken kettle’s base was not placed with the five fragments of its sides over this feature. However, one of the kettle bases from the curer’s kit does match the size of this broken kettle. A number of objects were then placed around, or in two lines radiating out from these kettles. Toward the northeast were two small Confederate military buttons, several large bones, metal chain links, and a bayonet. Toward the southeast were several more lengths of metal chain, numerous large metal objects (including a hinge, spike, bolt, and a piece of a plow), several ocean shells, a quartz crystal, glass fragments, and two additional Confederate military buttons. This set of artifacts likely formed a Nkisi that aided in securing the protection of the cabin and its occupants from harm caused by powerful elements from the outside world.

The fourth deposit discovered was found placed into a hearth of the cabin. Sometime after the construction of the hearth, the bricks at the back of the hearth, below the chimney, were removed and a hole was excavated into the fill and dirt below this portion of the hearth. A clay plaster surface was put over the bottom of the hole, which was then covered with ash, broken up and heavily burned ocean shell (especially oyster and whelk shell), and a few small nails. The hole was then refilled with soil and brick fragments to its original height. The floor of the hearth was then likely replaced, and the hearth continued to function for the cooking and heating of the cabin..

Each of these four sets of artifacts within a single cabin support the interpretation of an African and African-American behavioral/belief system – one that serves to control the outside world through the manipulation of the supernatural world. The full set of artifacts suggest that many of the basic ideas/rituals are of African origins. The patent medicine bottles and the thermometer demonstrate some adaptation on non-African ideas. Specifically, all of these elements support the hypothesis that the curer had sanctified the floor space of the cabin for its use within the ritual performance of curing and/or conjuring. As Thompson notes, such rituals take place within space marked out with a cross oriented to the compass directions. Such a cross with compass orientation can be drawn employing the four deposits as the ends of the lines (see diagram to be included at a later date). The meanings noted by Thompson for each of the four end points of the cross within an "African" cosmogram, are perfectly represented by the types of artifacts found within each of the features. Thus, the intersection of these lines would have defined the center from which curing and conjuring was accomplished.

[Kris Brown is also continuing to examine the spatial relationships between the artifacts in this cabin, by using various computer graphics and database programs. At some point in the future we hope to include some of the graphs she has generated on this page].

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