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Making Sense of Evidence: The African Burial Ground

The reports on the archeology, history, and skeletal remains of the African Burial Grounds present a more complex picture of 18th-century colonial New York than has been presented in textbooks. The reports also leave many questions unanswered, especially concerning links to the African past. It is important to ask what conclusions, if any, can be established by comparing the longevity of those buried to that of whites at the same time? Further, what story is revealed about the lives of African Americans in New York?


Burial 101 (see Chapter 8) was of a man in his early thirties, whose dental modifications (one of the man’s incisors had been intentionally filed) and dental lead levels suggested possible African nativity, but whose strontium isotope levels pointed to possible birth in America (Goodman et al. 2004 [Chapter 6 of the Skeletal Biology Report); see Handler 1994 on modified teeth).

The heart-shaped outline consisted of 51 domed, square-shanked iron tacks, with heads measuring 10 mm in diameter. The inner decorative elements were composed of smaller tacks, with heads approximately 6 mm in diameter. The tacks were described as “tinned or silvered, iron-headed tacks” when first exposed. All of the tacks appeared to be of one-part construction, and were of cast manufacture. The manufacture type suggests a post-1760 date for these items.

As illustrated in Chapter 8, the interior portion of the decoration may have originally formed initials and an age or year. If so, the initials are indecipherable, but the year “1769” is a plausible reading for a date (keeping in mind that the lid had split longitudinally, possibly bifurcating a “6”). Coffins with heart motifs on the lids are not uncommon in colonial period and 19th-century contexts. They typically had initials or a name, and an age and/or year formed in tacks on the interior. As noted, Joshua Delaplaine (coffin maker) made one such coffin for Samuel Hallet of New York in 1756. Samuel Hallet’s estate paid over £2 for his heart-decorated coffin, but since it was made of an expensive wood (liquidambar) we do not know how much the Burial 101 coffin, which was of larch, may have cost. Nor can we know who ordered the man’s coffin—his family and friends or the head of the deceased’s household; or whether an African craftsman built it; or whether the deceased’s mourners decorated it themselves. The heart shape may have had meanings for the mourners that were other than or in addition to those Europeans would have attributed to it. The heart has been interpreted as representing of the soul, for example, in West Central Africa (Denbow 1999), and the shape of a heart with interior scrolls has been identified as an Adinkra symbol—"Sankofa"—associated with Twi-speaking Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as noted in Chapter 8.

Heart-shaped decorations may not have evoked the same meanings for Africans as for Europeans. The coffin design may have called to mind the Sankofa symbol (Figure 15.1); the symbol refers to the need to remember one’s ancestors (Chapter 8). If the mourners who interred the man in Burial 101 viewed the heart-shaped decoration as a Sankofa symbol, then the design on the coffin lid would provide evidence of the portability of expressive culture and its importance to cultural survival. The multivalence of a familiar sign provided the opportunity to incorporate an African symbol into a funeral observance.

Source | Adapted from Warren R. Perry, Jean Howson, and Barbara A. Bianco, eds., New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report, Volume 1 (Howard University, February 2006) 222, 451-452; from The African Burial Ground, http://www.africanburialground.gov/ABG_FinalReports.htm.
Creator | Warren R. Perry, Jean Howson, and Barbara A. Bianco
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | Warren R. Perry, Jean Howson, and Barbara A. Bianco, “Making Sense of Evidence: The African Burial Ground,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/810.

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