University of Maryland and Archaeology in Annapolis Collaborate in Research at Wye House

Recent excavations at Wye House, where Frederick Douglass was enslaved, demonstrate how archaeology is both contributing to new scholarly understandings of the African American experience and becoming a more public enterprise.
The main house at Wye House plantation. According to Frederick Douglass, “It was called by the slaves the Great House Farm.” Courtesy Archaeology in Annapolis.

By Mark P. Leone

In the spring of 2005, my graduate students and I were speaking before congregants at St. Stephen’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Unionville, Maryland, near Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Many Unionville residents are descendants of African Americans who were enslaved at the nearby Wye House plantation and then settled Unionville after service in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. We were about to embark on an archaeological excavation of the Long Green, the name abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave to the area of Wye House where enslaved people lived and worked. We wanted to find out what the congregation wanted to learn about their heritage from our work. Mrs. Martha Ray Green, who had taught in the community for forty years and in 2005 was teaching Sunday School at St. Stephen’s, spoke: “I would want to know about slave spirituality. I would want to know what the Lloyd family did for freedom.”

Mrs. Green’s interests joined with those of Mrs. Mary Tilghman, an eleventh-generation Lloyd whose family acquired the Wye House property in 1659, in motivating our work. Having preserved the core of the site over many years, Mrs. Tilghman wanted to find out about its African American past as a way of understanding Lloyd family history more fully. Much of that history was already known because Douglass spent the early years of his enslaved childhood on the plantation, and he described the violence its owners wreaked on his people in all three of his autobiographies.[1] To learn more about the lives of the enslaved and African American and Euro-American cultures there, Mrs. Tilghman commissioned Archaeology in Annapolis at the University of Maryland, where I teach, to excavate the area of Wye House plantation where African Americans lived.

Harrison Roberts, formerly enslaved, near the Greenhouse, c. 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress.

My students and I excavated and analyzed material at Wye House from 2005 to 2014. During these nine years, we excavated more than one hundred units,[2] working on six ruined slave quarters along the Long Green and much of the land in between. We also excavated units in the Greenhouse, built by slaves in 1775, expanded in 1785, and the only standing eighteenth-century greenhouse in North America. We could not find many of the buildings Douglass described but found many buildings he never mentioned. We never touched the Lloyd family graveyard, nor the large graveyard for enslaved African Americans. Although the excavations are finished, data analysis will continue. Cumulatively our work demonstrates how archaeology is both contributing to new scholarly understandings of the African American experience and becoming a more public enterprise, one that works with communities to identify local interests and shares findings with broad audiences.


Evidence of a New Culture

A group of circles with a cosmogram molded into the lid of a canning jar (top right), discovered intact under a plantation dwelling at Wye House. Photograph by Sarah A. Grady; courtesy Archaeology in Annapolis.

The most dramatic material uncovered during our excavations are bundles or caches of found and repurposed objects located in the Greenhouse, a building termed the Captain’s Cottage, and a house where tenant farmers lived in the years after emancipation. These bundles, which include Native American projectile points, elements of iron farm implements, metal buttons and coins, and other items, were positioned strategically and arranged in ways that suggest spiritual practices common in West Africa. The most significant of these deposits was located by graduate student Benjamin Skolnik using a process of georectifying (aligning a remotely sensed image with a map) and orthorectifying (removing image distortions) a dozen maps, drawings, and photographs, which in turn enabled us to identify two historically known but subsequently lost slave quarters. When Skolnik, and fellow student (now Dr.) Elizabeth Pruitt then excavated them, they discovered a large deposit of circles, including a spoked iron wheel and a cosmogram (a circle with an X in the center) molded into the lid of a canning jar. The cosmogram, also a West African spiritual symbol, may be connected to the idea of the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel’s blazing chariot wheel subsequently popular in African American churches, and so we hypothesize that the Christianity present in the local Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal churches, where descendants of Wye House slaves worship today, may have roots in the African spirituality kept alive by their ancestors.

The group of circles in situ. Photograph by Benjamin A. Skolnik and Elizabeth Pruitt; courtesy Archaeology in Annapolis.

Our research has shed light on additional aspects of African American lives and the intermingling of African American and Euro-American cultures at Wye House plantation.[3] Comparing an analysis of zooarchaeological materials from slave quarters with evidence from two surviving Wye House cookbooks, graduate student (now Dr.) Amanda Tang concluded that enslaved people and Lloyd family members ate the same amount—albeit different cuts—of beef, pork, mutton, fowl, fish, and shellfish. This finding differs from what is known about the diet at many plantations, where pork was both the main meat and mainly consumed by African Americans. The cookbooks, used in the kitchen that serviced the residents of Wye House, list four African Americans and four Lloyd wives as cooks. Tang further argues that the southern cooking described in the cookbooks, based largely on vegetables, seafood, and some meat, with lots of sugar, is the result of a unified, but racially stratified cooking experience. It took both peoples to invent southern cooking, with the literate white writers of the cookbooks getting most of the credit.[4]

Interior of Wye Greenhouse, c. 1930. Courtesy Library of Congress.

By analyzing pollen recovered from the slave quarters and the south room of the Greenhouse, Pruitt arrived at two new insights about plants on the plantation.[5] First, the Greenhouse proper, which contained a large south-facing room, was planted originally with tropicals, water-loving plants, and late-winter-blooming bulbs. Contrary to earlier thinking, the Greenhouse was not built as an orangery but only became one in the nineteenth century. Second, and more significantly, evidence of berries, many vegetables, plants with medicinal uses, and plants used for mattress rushes and scouring pads was present in one of the Greenhouse rooms used as a slave quarter from 1780 to 1820. From this Pruitt concluded that elements of an African American pharmacopeia were in use during the period. Pollen from plants with medicinal properties was also present in to other quarters at Wye House, indicating the presence of an apothecary. With this data we have begun to examine the materials used in the medicinal/curing/conjuring practices embedded in African American religion.[6]


Community Engagement

Throughout our work, we sought to both engage and actively benefit the local community, particularly descendants from enslaved people at Wye House. We hosted several groups of visitors at our excavation sites, explaining how we work and our findings, and gave public talks regionally. We created two on-line public resources: People of Wye House, a searchable data base of the names of enslaved people on Lloyd properties between 1770 and 1834, including first and last names, ages, skill, and monetary value compiled from records maintained by the Lloyds; and Locating People in the Past, which combines two nineteenth-century maps of Talbot County, where Wye House is located, with corresponding census data to literally place people in the past.

Section of the exhibit Frederick Douglass and Wye House on display at the University of Maryland College Park. Photograph by George Holzer; courtesy Archaeology in Annopolis.

Our work has also resulted in two exhibits. In 2013 it was featured in Joint Heritage at Wye House at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland, cocurated by project principals Amanda Tang, Elizabeth Pruitt, Benjamin Skolnik, and myself; and Anke Van Wagenberg of the museum. The exhibit outlined the history of Wye House, described our research methods, and presented our conclusions about the coexistence of African, African American, and Euro-American cultures. Frederick Douglass and Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland, cocurated by Tang, Pruitt, Skolnik, Stefan Woehlke, Tracy Jenkins, and myself, is currently on display at the at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Hornbake Library through July 2017. The exhibit juxtaposes the central findings of our research with Douglass’s accounts of life at Wye House. During the opening ceremonies, Carlene Phoenix, president of Historic Easton, Inc., a local preservation organization, offered the following remarks, which suggest something of the meaning our work has had for her community:

My family was at the Wye at the same time as Frederick Douglass was. Three generations—myself, my daughter, and my two teenage granddaughters—had an opportunity to walk the land where our ancestors were enslaved. I remember a time when I was doing my family research, my family was just names on a piece of paper. But because of archaeology, my family became a reality to me. They weren’t just names. I was able to go to that site where they lived and feel the dirt and feel the brick all because of archaeology. I remember in my hands were these artifacts. I was able to see the pottery that they used and glasses and bottles. And I even picked up bones of the meat from the animals that they ate. . . . They’re now reality for me. They’re family for me. What archaeology did for me: it took my past and it brought it to my present. . . . What archaeology did for families, it filled a void.[7]

Our work at Wye House also led us to several years of excavation in The Hill, a historic African American community in nearby Easton, in a project with an explicitly civic intent. At the invitation of Historic Easton, and in collaboration with colleagues from Morgan State University, we excavated at two home sites[8] and buildings on the grounds of a Methodist Episcopal and an African Methodist Episcopal church, all dating to the nineteenth century. We uncovered many objects of everyday life, including coins, marbles, ceramic sherds, bits of metal and glass, and most notably, a button from an army uniform that may have belonged to a Buffalo Soldier who was related to a resident of one of the homes.

Part of a broader effort at historic preservation and community development, our work in The Hill attracted an unusual degree of local interest and brought considerable positive attention to this under-appreciated place. Because our dig sites were easily visible and open to the public, people came out to watch, handle artifacts, ask questions, and tour the sites. Current and former residents shared family photographs of life on The Hill and recounted stories of the neighborhood. Additionally, some local people participated in digging, screening for artifacts, and washing recovered artifacts. Here too, as Phoenix said, community members are reclaiming their historical rights through archaeology.

Archaeology in Annapolis at Wye House and on The Hill has demonstrated the importance of archaeology in developing new knowledge about African American history and, in the spirit of public humanities, the value of involving local communities in the research process. Certainly our work has contributed to the success of the recently established doctoral program in the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland. All the graduate students involved in the Wye House and The Hill projects have received (or will soon receive) their doctorates from the University of Maryland. All also learned something about the importance of public scholarship as we sought to address the kinds of questions Martha Ray Green posed at the beginning of our research.


Mark Leone. Photograph by John Consoli; courtesy University of Maryland.

Mark P. Leone is professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park and director of Archaeology in Annapolis.






[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); Life and Times of Frederick Douglass(1881). All three are included in Douglass Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Library of America, 1994).

[2] As used here, the term “unit” refers to a five-by-five-foot square parcel of land that defines an area for excavation.

[3] Archaeology at Wye House has resulted in three dissertations and seven site reports to date; more are forthcoming. These documents can be found on the Digital Repository at the University of Maryland (DRUM) and are freely available to all.

[4] Amanda Tang, “’Fried chicken belongs to all of us’: The Zooarchaeology of Enslaved Foodways on the Long Green, Wye House (18TA314), Talbot County, Maryland” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2014).

[5] Heather Trigg and Susan Jacobucci of the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at University of Massachusetts Boston analyzed pollen from the rooms in the Greenhouse. John Jones of Archaeological Consulting Services, Ltd. analyzed pollen from a separate hothouse and other quarters.

[6] Elizabeth Pruitt, “Reordering the Landscape: Science, Nature, and Spirituality at Wye House” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2015); and Reordering the Landscape of Wye House: Nature, Spirituality, and Social Order (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).

[7] A recording of the entire opening ceremony is available at “Frederick Douglass & Wye House,” published November 14, 2016. Ms. Phoenix’s remarks begin at 21:47; quoted material begins at 23:04.

[8] Tracy H. Jenkins and Benjamin A. Skolnik, “Phase I and II Archaeological Testing at 321 and 323 South Street, Easton, Maryland Home of the Family of the Buffalo Soldier” (report prepared for Historic Easton, Inc., Archaeology in Annapolis, 2013).