Evidence points to slaves’ technical skill

U. MARYLAND (US) — An excavation at the only 18th-century greenhouse left in North America reveals that African-American slaves played a sophisticated technical role in its construction and operation.

Slaves built the brick and mortar furnace that regulated temperature in the greenhouse. Evidence suggests they lived in the greenhouse, where they could operate the heating system—the hypocaust—and maintain the heat, light, and water required by the plants.

Archaeologists also uncovered relics of the slaves’ spiritual traditions at the 1785 greenhouse—known as the Wye “Orangery”—on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, including African charms buried at the entrance to a part of the greenhouse that once served as living quarters for the slaves who maintained the building.

“Ironically, these African symbols distinguish this building from its more elaborate European counterparts, and give it a unique American character,” says University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who led the excavation.

“These greenhouses were for agricultural and horticultural experimentation in 18th-century America, and African-American slaves played a far more significant and technical role in their operation than they’ve been given credit for,” Leone adds. “This work required sophistication and skill, and the slaves provided it.”

For example, slaves began experimenting there with wild broccoli and other greens, Seneca snakeroot as a cure-all, ginger root for tea, buckbean as an analgesic and antiemetic, and hardy bananas.

The image above is taken from the Library of Congress collection. Because of its age and uniqueness, the Orangery has been frequently photographed, but, until now, never systematically examined by archaeologists. Below, the interior under excavation. (Courtesy: University of Maryland)

Famous resident
Frederick Douglass, who lived there as a young man, made it famous through his autobiography. But the team concludes that he failed to appreciate the slaves’ full contribution.

“For years, this famous Enlightenment structure has been recognized for its European qualities, but it has a hidden African face that we’ve unearthed,” says Leone. “Concealed among the bricks of the furnace that controlled the greenhouse temperature, we found embedded a symbol used in West African spirit practice. An African-American slave built the furnace, and left an historic signature.”

Leone says that Enlightenment ideals of beauty, natural order, and scientific understanding made greenhouses important to colonial-era estates in America and across Europe. His excavation at the Wye greenhouse revealed the European tastes of its owners.

Based on an analysis of centuries-old pollen recovered from the site—a rarely used procedure in historical archaeology—plus written historical records, Leone says the greenhouse started with a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. By the 1820s, more exotic plants were cultivated, including lemon and orange trees, and possibly tubs of pond lilies. This corresponds to Frederick Douglass’ descriptions in his autobiography.

The Wye “Orangery” stood on the thriving Lloyd Plantation, a large operation with several hundred slaves. The property, first settled by Edward Lloyd I in the 1650s, is still owned by his descendants. The family has encouraged the excavation for the historical and scientific knowledge it can provide.

Hidden charm

Evidence that slaves constructed the furnace comes from the excavation’s discovery of a concealed West African-style charm cemented among the bricks at the rear of the furnace where it connects to ductwork—a spot where no one would see it, since spirit practice was conducted in secret.

The African-America builder of the furnace had placed a stone pestle there to control spirits. This corresponds to the Yoruba practice of placing an old, sharp object from the ground there, Leone says.

The team also recovered evidence of domestic life in one of the greenhouse’s three rooms. Most recently the area has been used as a potting shed. But, buried underground were fragments of earthenware and other domestic objects. Leone says the loft in the room was likely used for sleeping. By the door, the team also unearthed another set of West African charms—a coin and arrowheads—placed there to manage spirits.

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