Monday, August 11, 2014

My favorite place to browse is the book room at National Council of Social Studies.  This year, I Lay My Stitches Down caught my eye.  As I open most books at NCSS I'm wondering if its a good fit for what we do, archaeology education and outreach.  From the first page the book delivered with a resounding "yes":  

The finds of archaeologists beneath dilapidated cabins down the hill: some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons and squirrels--hard remains of suppers stalked by moonlight, faith, starvation.

Re-reading Cynthia Grady's I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery with rich illustrations by Michele Wood I'm struck how nearly every page harkened me back to an archaeological discovery made in the field or in the lab. 

Log Cabin

Many of the thoughts to follow are related to the Kingsley Plantation site northeast of Jacksonville in Florida.  Kingsley is the birthplace of Plantation archaeology, and for a description of this subfield I can't think of better phrasing than the author's own in the first poem "Log Cabin":

Archaeologists excavating the areas where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived have discovered artifacts that resemble ritual objects similar to those used in West African religious practices.  These artifacts have been found buried in symbolic arrangements and clustered near doorways and chimneys--thresholds for people and spirits.  

Archaeologists from the University of Florida's Archaeology field school unearthed and recorded numerous objects in and around the tabby slave cabins that related to African identity and practice of religion.  Historically people enslaved by Zephaniah Kingsley were allowed to practice their faith and express their traditions more so than at other historic plantation sites. 

Cotton Boll

This illustration depicts a woman stitching together quilt squares using needle and thread, as the accompanying poem tells of the woman stitching to the beat of music from Africa.  When we find a needle in the field or lab it is difficult to imagine the textile produced or activity directly related to the artifact.  Even harder to imagine is the context that work took place in, that there might be music to sew by, perhaps like sea shanties provided a tempo to row.  Sew shanties?  The range of emotions possible while crafting from cotton, "dangling by a thread that been spun like cotton fiber grown and pinched on this hell place," yet, "[b]efore I know, I'm rocking with the rhythm of the stitching, humming low the melody of 'Gilead."

Items related to sewing are frequently recovered from archaeological sites, including bone needle cases, needles, thimbles, scissors
Needle case made of carved bone (Source: JeffPat 2011).

Archaeological evidence of sewing (source: ConnDOT 2013)

Bone needles dating back 13,000 years ago found in France (Source: BBC gallery via Roberthorvat30).

Underground Railroad

The image Michele Wood produced, inspired by the Underground Railroad poem by Grady, brought to mind the idealized image of slaves escaping by boat.  While the 1864 image is problematic, we use it to illustrate the potential importance of simple flat boats (barca chatas) used in escaping to Florida's swamp and marsh.  I prefer Wood's illustration as the image does not evoke pastoral calm, but panic, fear, and urgency.

In my former life, working in Kentucky, I often had to respond to calls related to potential Underground Railroad sites.  This was difficult, as good hiding spots leading escaped slaves across the Ohio River to freedom would not be obvious.  Unless a site had good primary and secondary sources to authenticate a claim, archaeologically this could not be done.

In Florida we have a different story.  People escaping slavery in the immediate area bordering Florida often ran south, not north.  The Spanish operated a different system of slavery.  In one case, the Spanish Governor in 1738 gave sanctuary to Africans that fled English Carolina colonies.  Ft. Mose became the first free African settlement in the United States.

Print from Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1864 from the Mariners’ Museum via Smithsonian)

Broken Dishes

 While many more entries brought me back to plantation archaeology projects from my own of the past, I particularly loved the "Broken Dishes." This poem finds a slave hurrying through the house falls over and the plates she's carrying are thrown in the air: "Lord, those flyin' plates look like angels."  I worked for years excavating the slave cabin area at the Ashland Estate, home of Henry Clay.  It often surprised us the quality of the ceramics used in the slave area.  We believed dishes from the main house were regularly passed down and used by house slaves that lived in the vicinity.

In addition to excavating the slave cabin area we spent many years excavating Henry Clay's 20 x 20 foot privy (outhouse), during which we found monogrammed "C" dishes broken into many pieces (see image below).  The porcelain sherds remarkable match the description in Grady's poem: "A heap of gold-rimmed plates brighter than the halo."  While the poem interprets a potential fall by the house slave as the cause for the breakage, in the case of the Ashland privy the breakage was more likely due to a mass house cleaning episode where old trash from the Clay's was discarded before the new inhabitants (the Bowman's with monogrammed B plates) move into the house.

The poem ends with the woman saying, " I'spect tomorrow be the fields for me."  We did have evidence that supported the notion that there were domestic slaves used nearer or in the house, versus those work worked and lived closer to the fields.  We never did find evidence for the field slave cabins, the footprints and artifacts likely destroyed by development.

Gold-rimmed dishes recovered from Henry Clay's privy (Source: KAS).

Final Thoughts

 For integrating poetry, music, history, and even archaeology to draw emotion from the reader on every page, I highly recommend this book for classroom and outreach programs.  The book contains 11 poems with corresponding rich illustrations.  In addition to notes by the author and illustrator, a brief introduction and further reading list are offered.   I recently learned of a quilting workshop put on by the Public History Center in Sanford and thought of this book as one of the many tools we can use to bring the past to life through material objects.   

For more reading on Kingsley and the archaeology check out the Project Archaeology curriculum done in partnership with UF, NPS, and FPAN.  For more on quilts and slavery read Barbara Brackman's Facts and Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts and Slavery, 2006.

Text: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff

Cover image and excerpts: I Lay My Stitches Down by Cynthia Grady with illustrations by Michele Wood, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012.

Other images: Kingsley interpretive panels developed in 2008 by UF, NPS, and FPAN staff, installed on site at Kingsley Plantation. Other sources referenced in image captions.

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