West African spirit cache found on Harriet Tubman birthplace land


CHURCH CREEK, Md. – A heart-shaped glass stopper for a perfume bottle. A coin from 1808. A button. Pins. Fragments of a story almost lost to time and the elements.

“All those pieces were there, and I thought to myself, we have found Africa on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” said Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Chief Archaeologist Dr. Julie Schablitsky.

Doing The Digging

The most recent discovery of archeological artifacts on the land where abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was born comes two years after shovels were first put in the ground there.

“I remember looking out there with the archaeologists, and it was desolate in a beautiful sort of way,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “After 1,000 holes in the ground and nothing to show, I kind of felt a little defeated. But then we kept on going, and eventually found some broken ceramics in the ground. We talked a little bit more, and we were eventually able to state that we did find the home site of Ben Ross.”

After archaeologists knew they had found the home of Tubman’s father, they knew they had to keep digging. First, a fragment of brick was unearthed. Then, broken pottery. Eventually, cautiously driven shovels found the foundation of a 20 by 40-foot building, and a grand fireplace.

Archaeologists also found the remains of what would have been the diet of a person living in extreme poverty, eating what they could find: turtles, oysters, fish, crabs, muskrats, and other wild game. The mystery: why would someone with such a large living space be barely scraping by? The likely answer: this was once the home of an enslaved overseer.

West African Spirit Cache Unearthed

Then, they found the glass perfume bottle stopper.

“When I saw that, I thought, “What is this doing at the site?’ But then, when I saw that it was associated with the cache of artifacts, it all made sense,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “It was a great discovery.”

As archaeologists kept looking, more and more items were found. Glass shards and items to reflect or contain spirits. Something red and something blue to represent unity, spirituality, and sacrifice. Buttons, round to represent the sky overhead. Dr. Schablitsky says it all pointed to the same conclusion: archaeologists had likely stumbled upon a West African spirit cache.

“Someone who lived there had placed it in front of the fireplace to protect the occupants inside from any sort of harm,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “They had a lot of different ways to try and exert control over themselves, because they were enslaved. They didn’t have over their bodies, or their time, or their children, or anything. So, perhaps, by digging this ritual – this African spirit practice that had been handed down to them for generations – they could somehow feel a little bit of protection, and at home.”

Tuesday, the items were unveiled to a crowd watching with awe-filled eyes. Maryland Governor Wes Moore was there to hold the items in his own hands. He took a moment to gather his emotions before answering the question, “What are you feeling right now?”

“It’s overwhelming. It’s just a constant reminder of where we come from,” said Gov. Moore. “There’s a beauty in our journey. But also, I think there’s a reminder of our impermanence. We’re now uncovering things, we’re now continuing to discover, we’re now continuing to learn pieces about history, and our journey and path.”

Filling Out The Family Tree

Tubman’s family tree is large, and complicated. Douglas Mitchell, a direct descendent of one of Tubman’s eight brothers and sisters, hails from Seattle, Washington. However, he’s spent the last five months in Dorchester County researching his family’s past. Tuesday’s announcement, says Mitchell, is helping to fill in some of the blanks.

“Priceless value, I find, in understanding, the often cruel and brutal path of life down which they trod, and how much smoother much less perilous the path for the life upon which I have trod,” said Mitchell. Their past directly informs my present. “I’ve discovered the tenuous rope bridge connecting one life with the other… Far more than the tantalizing artifacts that [archaeologists are] discovering, their excavations and analyses are unearthing layers of me.”

Tina Wyatt is another direct descendent of one of Tubman’s siblings. She says her previous conceptions of what her ancestors went through now have added, and valuable, context.

“This physical evidence gives me an idea of how my family of ancestors experience life in bondage,” said Wyatt. “I am eager to watch this unfold as the team finds each piece of the puzzle, shedding more and more light on who they were individually.”

Looking Ahead

Gov. Moore says he’s anxiously awaiting any new discoveries at the site. Adding, it’s every Marylander’s duty to reach back into the past in order to understand the best steps forward.

“We’re here in the celebration of a legacy of Harriet Tubman, and so many other people who fought to ensure that freedom could be felt by everybody. That is not a condemnation of our history. That’s a celebration of our history,” said Gov. Moore. “Part of the beauty of our journey is that we can be, and we should be, a society that understands and appreciates our history, because it is the foundation for our future.”

Archaeologists plan to return to the site over the next several months to keep digging. Dr. Schablitsky says they’re hoping to find more evidence of the life Tubman lived. Beyond that, MDOT says there are several other sites up and down the state which could also hold valuable lessons about Tubman’s life and legacy.

Categories: Local News, Maryland