University of Maryland Exhibit Shows Connections Between African Spiritual Practices, Christianity

"Frederick Douglass & Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland" interprets independent culture of enslaved people.

A new exhibition at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library displays archaeologists’ first-ever finding of an intact set of objects that they hypothesize are religious symbols — traditional ones from Africa, mixed with what they believe to be a biblical image: a representation of Ezekiel’s Wheel.

The artifacts are on display at a new exhibition at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library. The display, “Frederick Douglass & Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland,” aims to examine and interpret the daily lives and independent culture of enslaved Africans and African Americans at Wye House.

Wye House is the site of a former plantation in Easton, Md. After the Civil War, it became the home of a tenant farmer. The house and surrounding land had been owned since the 1650s by the Lloyd family but were worked by enslaved Africans and their descendants, including renowned abolitionist and author  Frederick Douglass.

According to the exhibition overview, the artifacts on display include “a cosmogram-like figure molded into the lid of a canning jar, surrounded by a series of circles, and a wheel” about 12 inches in diameter. The cosmogram, a circle with an X inside, is a powerful symbol in Central West African spiritual traditions. Maryland archaeologists believe enslaved people may have seen the circle as Ezekiel’s blazing chariot wheel, as described in the Book of Ezekiel 10:9-10. An article in the New York Times notes that this dig is the first time the two circle images had been found together virtually side by side.

Mark P. Leone, a University of Maryland archaeologist and leader of the discovery team, interpreted the discovery as indication that Christianity “merged with” rather than erased traditional African spirit practices.

Two of Dr. Leone’s students, Benjamin A. Skolnik and Elizabeth Pruitt—now Dr. Pruitt—found and excavated the artifacts four years ago from Wye House. Archaeologists worked the site for nine years. During an excavation in 2009, archaeologists discovered that the back portion of the Lloyd greenhouse, referred to as the “potting shed,” functioned as a slave quarter.

In an exhibition video, Dr. Pruitt says that two Native American projectile points and a brass button were found “laid in a row, underneath the doorway [of the greenhouse slave quarters], pointing outward.” Skolnik stated that enslaved people placed the objects there deliberately, in accordance with the spiritual practices they “created and actively maintained,” to prevent bad spirits from entering the home. The Lloyd family cemetery, which Douglass wrote about in his autobiographies, can be seen from the greenhouse slave quarters.

“Frederick Douglass & Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland” also exhibits archaeologists’ findings about horticulture and about food, including two rare cookbooks made and used by Lloyd wives and African American women. The project was commissioned by the late Mary Tilghman, an eleventh-generation descendant of the Lloyd family, and will be on display through July, 2017.