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Levi Jordan

"Shell Carving and self reliance in an African American plantation community"

by Robert N. Harris

This paper was presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for Historical Archaeology, held in Atlanta, Georgia in January, 1998.

The captions next to the pictures were written by Carol McDavid. For more information about how Robert determined the "abandonment zone" he discusses below, go to the interview with him.

Abstract of Paper:

Archaeological research in the slave and tenant quarters of the Levi Jordan Plantation, Brazoria County, Texas, has provided a detailed insight into the structure and function of a Nineteenth Century African American plantation community. This investigation has revealed a number of adaptive responses that the slave and tenant populations made to their living conditions. This paper will discuss the archaeological evidence recovered from a single cabin within the community and specifically how it indicates the presence of craft specialization on the plantation as one such adaptive response. The specialized craft is the carving of shell, bone, and other materials for consumption within the African American community on the plantation. The implications of this specialization for the economic, social, and religious components of the community structure will be elaborated upon as well.

Robert Harris

See Maria Franklin's page on this web for her comments on this paper and the others delivered in this session.

The area being examined in this paper is in Block One, Row B, Cabin 3. It is shaded gray in the map on the right. See Site Map for map of entire site.
The archaeology conducted in the slave and tenant quarters on the Levi Jordan Plantation has shown that the community created an internal economic, social, and religious system. This cultural system helped provide for the needs of the community from within it’s own boundaries, giving some degree of independence from the planter-dominated society that surrounded them.

How the people in the community participated in their system is archaeologically visible in the artifacts and artifact contexts they left behind in their individual cabins. The specific ways in which individual households functioned within the system can be interpreted by comparing the artifact assemblages recovered from these cabins to one another. It is evident from this comparison that several households specialized in the production of crafts and/or services for use within the community. The specializations that have been defined so far are those of a "political leader", a curer, a munitions maker, a seamstress, a quilter, and a shell and bone carver.

The need for people in the community who specialized in the production of munitions, clothes, and quilts is easily seen. These items deal with some of the basic, material needs of everyday life. Shelter, in the form of clothes and quilts, and munitions, whether they be for hunting or self defense, would have been necessary for survival. The need for a political leader and a curer, although not strictly material, can also be easily seen. Caring for the social, physical, and spiritual well-being of the community would have been no less a need than food and shelter.

What is not immediately obvious is the need for a carving specialist. Carved bone and shell do not at first glance fill a basic need of the community. Despite this, a wide assortment of carved bone and shell artifacts have been recovered from several cabins within the community. Some of these are "store-bought" items that have been modified from their original form. Among these is a shell button recovered from the "Munitions Maker’s Cabin." Sometime after it’s manufacture, a six-sided star, or pentagram, was carved into it’s inward-facing side. The design was not visible while it was worn.

  This is the pentagram described in the above paragraph. It is almost impossible to see the design on the button, but the drawing is what it looks like.

(Even though this has six points, it is still called a pentagram)

Other items were produced entirely through carving, with designs that range from very simple to very elaborate. Some fairly simply worked pieces of bone were taken from the "Curer’s Cabin." These may have originally functioned as hair pins before becoming decorated, after which they may have served as "oracle bones." The excavation of the "Political Leader’s Cabin" yielded five more bone artifacts. The first is a very simply carved pendant, made from the spur of a fighting cock. The other four pieces are very elaborately carved. These appear to have functioned together, possibly as a fly whisk.
  These pieces of carved bone could have served as oracle bones, or perhaps hairpins.
  The spur of a fighting cock, with the top part hollowed out, and worn as a pendant.
  These are pictures of what was possibly used as a fly whisk. There is another piece which screws in the top portion, which is not shown
Despite their variability, some common themes connect these carved artifacts. First, none of them would have been readily available outside the plantation. These items could not have been found in any commercial setting that the community had access to. No store or market anywhere near them would have sold such things. The artifacts that were carved from ordinary objects were certainly commercially available, such as the "star button," but not in their final forms. The raw materials used for producing the entirely hand-made artifacts would have been readily available from the immediate environment. In any event, none of these carved artifacts could have been acquired, in their final forms, outside of the plantation. Thus, it is very likely they were modified or produced in their entirety sometime after they arrived on the plantation.

Secondly, all of these carved artifacts were recovered from the abandonment zones of their respective cabins. If the cabins and the artifacts within them were being actively used when they were abandoned, then these carved artifacts were also being used as well. This would indicate that the system governing the creation, distribution, and use of these artifacts was in place, and operating, at the time of the abandonment. Therefore, if there was a household within the community that produced these items, it should be represented in the abandonment episode.

As mentioned, the intensity of the work involved in creating these artifacts varies greatly, raising the possibility that more than one individual was responsible for their creation. However, a third common theme makes this unlikely. This theme does not relate to individual artifacts. It has to do with the nature of the specializations themselves. There appears to be no overlap in any of the other specializations found on the plantation. The specialized products are found within many cabins, but only one cabin clearly stands out as the producer or manufacturer. For example, some quantity of lead shot has been recovered from every cabin, but only one "Munitions Maker’s Cabin" can be identified.

Taken together, these conditions strongly suggest that a person lived on the plantation who specialized in the carving of bone, shell, and probably wood as well. If all of these premises are valid, then there should be an area on the plantation where this activity took place.

During the 1991 field season another carved shell was recovered from the abandonment zone of a residential cabin, a carved oyster shell cameo.Several things about this piece are very unusual. Some parts of the design are very well defined. A house, a bird, and a woman are the most well defined elements. In sharp contrast, the foreground and the background are very vaguely defined. A border seems to follow the perimeter of the cameo, but it is not continuous. Even the well defined areas are problematic. The direction of the bird’s flight is unclear, for example. The piece as a whole shows no signs of wear, and nothing indicates that it was mounted in any fashion. Thus, it is very likely that when the cabin was abandoned, the cameo was unfinished.

  Carved Oyster Shell Cameo
The immediate implication of these circumstances was that the "Carver’s Cabin" had been found. My research has focused on determining the likelihood that this was where a carving specialist lived and worked, and if so, in what ways the community would have needed such a person. This paper represents the preliminary results of that research.

The cabin in question is designated Block I, Row B, Cabin 3. Excavations in this cabin were conducted during the 1989 through 1993 summer field seasons. A total of 15 contiguous excavation units were dug into this cabin, intercepting nearly 100% of it’s floor space and yielding over 36,000 artifacts.

The cabin’s three exterior walls were defined by the presence of discolored trenches where the wall bricks had been laid down. The hearth still retained its first five courses [rows] of brick, which helped anchor the rest of the cabin’s architecture. The interior wall that separated individual cabins had no bricks or trenches associated with it. It was instead defined by a distinct, linear absence of artifacts that ran between the east and west walls of the cabin. Thus defined, the cabin measures approximately 16 X 22 feet.

  A map of the residential area that has been identified as the "Shell and Bone Carver's Cabin", showing the walls and probable north wall.
To help answer the question of how this cabin and the artifacts within it functioned, a model of what the archaeological footprint of a shell and bone carving workshop might be was constructed, and compared against the artifacts and contexts recovered from this cabin.

The overall distribution and variety of artifact types within this cabin indicates that it functioned primarily as a residence. For the purposes of this paper, only the artifacts and areas that may have been associated with craft specialization are considered.

The first thing expected in the archaeological record of a carving workshop is obvious - carved pieces of bone and shell. These do occur within the abandonment zone of the cabin. One piece of bone was carved into a small cylinder, with 6 tabs notched around the perimeter of it’s distal end. Through it’s center ran a slender, pointed piece of metal.

It now appears that the number "6" is another pattern or theme in the carved artifacts recovered from this plantation. The design on the head of the "fly-whisk" is made up of 6 leaves, the pentagram on the shell button has 6 points, and the bone tool has 6 tabs notched into it. Additionally, a metal button recovered from the "Munitions Maker’s" cabin has had a design consisting of 6 leaves etched onto it. That this subtle continuity in style spans three different mediums and 4 unique artifacts strengthens the argument for a single carving tradition, if not a single producer. This symbolism undoubtedly meant more to the people who used these items than simply that the same person made them. The interpretation of that meaning goes beyond the scope of this paper.

Other shell artifacts have been recovered besides the oyster cameo. The most numerous of these are shell buttons. 25 shell buttons were recovered from the abandonment portion of the cabin’s deposit, in a minimum of 7 varieties.

The design on one button is absolutely unique to this cabin. This shell button, if not entirely hand made, was at the very least modified from it’s original form after arriving on the plantation. What is perhaps best described as a cloverleaf pattern was hand carved into the outward-facing surface of this button. The border carved around the perimeter of this button is identical to the border found on the "pentagram button." This second continuity in stylistic elements, along with the recurrence of the number 6, further strengthens the argument for a single manufacturing tradition.

The second expectation of the archaeology of a carving workshop are pieces in intermediate stages of production. This is especially what the case should be in the context of a rapid abandonment, and indeed, there is evidence for this. The best example is the oyster cameo itself. This piece is very nearly complete, but it is clearly unfinished. The opposite end of the spectrum is equally represented. These pieces of shell have been deliberately cut and shaped to this roughly square form, but not yet carved or further modified in any recognizable way. They may represent blanks, or preforms, being made ready for carving.

The next expectation is that the raw materials used for producing these objects should also be found. A total of 140 whole shells and 338 fragments of shell were excavated from the abandonment portion of this cabin. A variety of species are represented, all of which are native to the local marine and brackish habitats. The most abundant of these are two species of ark, with coquina, brackish mussels, rangia, whelk, and scallops being much less numerous. 65 of these shells are perforated, and many of the non-perforated shells have been chipped or smoothed.

It is not yet clear what stage of use these culturally modified shells are in. Any portion of them may represent raw materials, intermediate stages of manufacture, or finished products. Because so many whole, undamaged shells were recovered, it is likely that the fragmented shells were broken before the abandonment of the cabin, and not during the formation of the site. This suggests their use as raw materials. That shell fragments occur for which no whole specimens have been recovered suggests the same. These include fragments of an indeterminate species of clam. They have resisted more precise classification because their outer covering has been scraped off, exposing the shiny lower surface of the shell. They appear to be the same species of shell that the cut blanks, as well as the less frequently occurring button types, were cut from. This may suggest that shell buttons were being manufactured within the cabin.

At this point it should be mentioned that an unquantifiable portion of all of these classes of artifacts - the finished products, the raw materials, and everything in between, are probably missing. It is almost certain that a carver of shell and bone would also have worked with wood. Considering the ease of procurement and the softness of wood, it probably was the primary medium. Unfortunately, practically no wood has survived from the time of this cabin’s occupation.

If part of this cabin was a craft workshop, then the next evidence that should be sought are the tools required for the production of these items. With many other crafts, such as munitions making, the tools are very specific. This is not the case for shell, bone, and wood carving. The only certain requirements are that the tools be sharp or rough enough to cut or abrade shell, bone, and wood, and that they be of a size equitable in scale to the size of the piece being worked. Thus, one would expect to find a generalized tool kit containing an assortment of adequately sharp or abrasive instruments, in a variety of sizes.

This type of tool kit is exactly what was found. The abandonment zone yielded no less than 10 folding pocket knives, 4 flat files,1 short triangular file, 7 long metal pins, 1 awl, 1 punch, 1 plane bit, 2 chisels, 2 chipped stone tools, and at least 2 different complete saws. The previously mentioned carved bone cylinder with the sharpened nail might well be included here. Its small size makes it possible that it was used to do fine finishing work that would have been difficult to do with the larger knives. The context that this peculiar tool was found in also suggests that this is how it functioned. It was recovered from the same excavation unit that the cameo was found in.

The context of these artifacts is the most useful attribute for assigning function to them, and by extension, to areas within the cabin. If craft specialization occurred inside this cabin, it should be expected that a portion of the floor space would have been set aside for it, and that the materials associated with that activity will be grouped together there. The spatial distribution and co-occurrence of artifact types within the cabin bears this out.

There is at least one large area of the cabin that appears to have been set aside for some sort of specialized activity. This area spans the width of the cabin, and extends a distance of 6 feet in from the interior cabin wall. It appears that this area may have been a completely separate room within the cabin, separated by a wall or some other physical partition. The best evidence for a physical division of space within the cabin is the distribution of one artifact type in particular, round bottle stoppers. Bottle stoppers are probably the most mobile type of artifact on a floor surface, and would have been the most likely to run up against a wall as the cabin decayed. Their arrangement is very linear across the width of the cabin, and on either side of this line the distribution and variety of artifact types are demonstrably different.

  This map shows the distribution of marble stoppers in this residence, with the hypothesized wall already drawn in. Other artifact categories are also being examined to see if their location supports the hypothesized boundary shown here. Those tests will be dealt with more extensively in Robert's thesis.
The types of artifacts that have been described are dense throughout this area. The most distinct clustering of types are the carved bone and shell artifacts. 6 of the 7 obviously modified pieces of shell and bone - the handmade bone tool, 4 carved bone handled utensils, and the oyster shell cameo were all found within this area.

Tools and other implements are also very dense in this area. 5 of the cabin’s 11 folding pocketknives came from within this relatively small space, as did 18 of the 32 kitchen utensils, and 4 of the 7 metal pins, which by surface area is over twice the density of rest of the cabin. Two files, three hooks, one thimble, and both chipped stone tools also came out of this area.

  The artifact distribution described in the paragraphs above. Other tools do appear in the area below the line which is hypothesized to be the boundary of the activity area, but they are not associated with any carved bone items.
To summarize, several lines of evidence that would indicate the presence of a shell, bone, and wood carving specialist converge within this cabin. The entire range of a production process is archaeologically represented. The tools, raw materials, finished products, and byproducts of a carving industry are present. The finished products recovered from inside the cabin are stylistically similar in specific ways to those found in other cabins within the community. Finally, space within the cabin has been set aside for this activity.

Taken together these points can be made to argue that a carving specialist lived on Levi Jordan Plantation. However, this argument cannot fully be made until the most important aspect of it has been considered. The most convincing part of the argument for stating that this person existed lies in the answer to the question that was posed at the start of this paper. The issue of why the community would have needed this specialist must now be addressed.

The items suggested to have been made by this person have a significance that goes far beyond their utilitarian uses. Fastening clothes, personal ornamentation, preparing food, and whisking away flies was certainly part of these objects’ uses. But all these needs could have been met by any number of other objects, none of which would have required a carver. The functions these objects served was something other than simple utilitarian uses, something vital to the existence of the community at a level beyond material provisioning.

The community that developed and lived on the Levi Jordan Plantation created a cultural system that functioned to protect and to provide for themselves. This system could not have existed without it’s members sharing a strong sense of community identity. By keeping their community bounded and unified, these people worked to ensure their survival. Through their community ties, they were able to resist an outside world that held the power to take away the direction of their lives.

What these objects did was to help create and maintain the shared identity of the community. These objects are imbued with symbolism, the esoteric meaning of which would have been known only within the community. The meanings portrayed by these objects signified the identity of this community to it’s members. Without a strong community identity, the people who lived on this plantation would not have had the power to resist their oppression in the ways that they did. It is for this reason that the community needed someone to make these objects, and it is the final reason to argue for this person’s residence on the plantation.

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