A Startling Discovery

American Nkisi

In 1994, archaeologists working for the Carroll Park Foundation, together with a team from the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology, made a startling discovery. As they studied field notes from an earlier 1986 excavation of the Carroll’s Hundred kitchen wing, the archaeologists noticed what had been classified as a stone, together with a sherd of blue painted Chinese export porcelain, and a fragment of clear curved glass. Based on their knowledge of recent discoveries of similar assemblages at colonial sites, the team took a closer look. First, they found that the “stone” was actually a quartz crystal; and second, that like other recent finds, it likely had been treasured for its spiritual symbolism and sacred power — like those in a far away African homeland. There, similar quartz, glass, or ceramic items might be called minkisi.

A Single Object - A Revolutionary Interpretation

Earlier in 1991, archaeologists at another colonial site had excavated a minkisi-like assemblage at the Charles Carroll House and Garden in Annapolis that was strikingly similar to the 1994 discovery at Carroll’s Hundred. The Annapolis find was larger, containing several clear crystals, quartz flakes, pottery, and other small items. Within the space of three years, this discovery, close on the heels of several other exciting African American finds, opened the door to a revolutionary new interpretation of the Carroll’s Hundred site. From this point forward we would investigate it from a multicultural perspective that recognized the importance of every group of early Americans — a perspective that would not be a top-down, wealthy land-owner perspective, but a multi-faceted approach based in the reality of America’s origins in diversity.

Developing New Theories

In the early 1990s, the discovery of these minkisi-related caches led to new theories about their significance. All indicators began to point to West African origins. Both the Fang and 1 Bakongo peoples of this area share a variation of the Bantu language. And, both engage in spiritual religious practices that use Minkisi objects (singular: Nkisi). Almost half of all Africans brought to the colonies were from areas where variations of Bantu were spoken.2 In fact, “The word nkisi is related etymologically to words used in other Central African cultures to mean ‘spirit’”.3

The discovery of minkisi-like objects in colonial America does not suggest at all that enslaved Africans somehow managed to keep these items amidst the horrendous conditions of the Middle Passage and bring them to the new world. Instead, African Americans may have used local materials to re-create ritual objects they had cherished in Africa. Although some like cowrie shells, not found in the Upper Chesapeake region, may have been imported through trade or barter.

Carroll’s Hundred-sponsored research in the mid-1990’s showed that, “Recent research on the significance of quartz crystals has resulted in better understanding about some aspects of the nature of early African American heritage. Most importantly archaeologists now recognize that quartz crystals found in certain well-defined contexts provide evidence that the site’s African American occupants held beliefs and values that had their origins in West African traditions.” The discovery at Carroll’s Hundred appears to confirm that enslaved African Americans had not abandoned, but held close, their West African spiritual beliefs.4

"To be treated with great respect"

There are many theories about the significance and uses of minkisi and how to interpret their shapes, colors, and designs. The colors white and blue, materials that are transparent such as glass or minerals, or shapes that are round, spherical, or pierced are thought to carry specific meaning.5 So when archaeologists come upon objects such as the ones in the photo, they begin to ask questions such as: Does where the object was found suggest use by an African slave? If so, what meanings are associated with the color and shape of the object?

Cowrie shells are believed to have ritual significance and monetary value and were especially precious. This may be why only one, out of perhaps a hundred thousand items, has ever been found at Carroll’s Hundred. Bone buttons, it is thought, might have been used as a substitute for cowrie shells.6 Both materials are white, a spiritually significant color in African ritual. Blue is another color that was important, perhaps suggesting the transparent medium of water, and may explain the presence of blue-designed Chinese export porcelain in the minkisi assemblages.

Water was thought to be a medium through which communication between the living and the dead was possible,7 making clear or transparent materials very valuable. The quartz crystal from the Kitchen Wing at Carroll’s Hundred is sparkling and clear, potentially imbuing its owner with the ability to communicate with powerful forces, or to channel their power to protect or heal. Like the Carroll’s Hundred crystal, most of the recently discovered minkisi caches have been deliberately buried in strategic locations at the entrances to rooms, or on either sides of doorways. The cosmic power embodied in these objects was to be treated with great respect.

Unfortunately a poorly planned park drainage project in 2005, destroyed the partially excavated feature where the Carroll’s Hundred crystal had been buried. The opportunity to learn more about this significant object and importance to African American culture during the colonial period has been lost. The hope is that future site excavations may reveal other, related objects, and we may be able to gain a deeper understanding of the origins of African American spiritual belief in America.
1 Galke Laura J. “Did the Gods of Africa Die? A Re-examination of a Carroll House Crystal Assemblage.” Paper presented at the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference, 1999 Harrisburg, PA.
2 Jones, Lynn Diekman, Logan, George C. “The Material Culture of Slavery from an Annapolis Household.” Paper presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Conference, 1995, Washington, D.C.
3 Galke, op. cit., p. 6; citing Theophus H. Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formation of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 40.
4 Logan, George C.; Seidel, John L.; contributors: Lindsay, Kathleen; Treny, Janina O’Brien; Distefano, Caryn; Etherton, Kevin; Norman, Gary J. “Mount Clare’s Kitchen: 1986 Archaeological Research at Carroll Park (18BC10K).” Draft Report prepared for the Carroll Park Foundation Inc., April 1995, Baltimore, MD. p. 35.
5 Galke, op. cit., p. 7.
6 Logan, George C., Bodor; Thomas W.; Jones, Lynn D.; Creveling, Marian, C., “1991 Archaeological Excavations at the Charles Carroll House in Annapolis, Maryland 18AP45.” Report prepared for Charles Carroll House of Annapolis Inc., July 1992, Annapolis, MD.
7 Galke, op. cit., pp. 6-7, citing Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 121.