In the 1995 film Pulp Fiction, the characters chase after a briefcase, the contents of which are never shown on screen. Instead, when the characters open the case to peer inside, the camera captures their awed faces from the case’s perspective, bathed in an otherworldly glow (a very similar effect to how we photographed our field school students on our last day in the field). The audience never discovers what is inside, but it is understood to be so important that it drives the plot and momentum of the story. Director Quentin Tarintino has said that anything could be in the case, whatever the viewer can imagine. For every audience member, it will be different. In story-telling, the use of the briefcase in the film is a device is called a MacGuffin, and it stands for an object that motivates the characters to move the plot along its trajectory. To use a more archaeologically-themed fiction, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.
I explain all of that in order to ask this: When we tell our stories in archaeology, especially to the public, how do we use the artifacts?
The artifacts are our discoveries, and that is what drives us as archaeologists. It is what sells our stories to the public. It’s hard to ignore that the sense of discovery provides the attraction and romance to archaeology, particularly in popular media (see Shanks and Tilley 1992). Even the publicity poster for the Day of Archaeology 2013 invites others to “discover the past.” As I sit in the Archaeology in Annapolis lab today, working on the site report for our field work, my main concern has been how to present our discoveries without reducing them to a plot device.
The past three years, Archaeology in Annapolis at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been excavating at the Wye House Plantation on the Eastern Shore. In 2010, fellow PhD student Benjamin Skolnik discovered the locations of two slave quarters that would have housed a portion of the hundreds of enslaved on the property before Emancipation and the buildings’ destruction in the early twentieth century. We discovered them again, in the form of their remains when we excavated that summer, defining the boundaries of the structures as best we could. We returned from our third field season earlier this month, and our jobs are currently in the lab, processing the discoveries.
I mean processing in a few different ways. As I sit here in the lab today, a volunteer student Lisa is washing and rebagging the artifacts from Wye House. She carefully scrubs the glass, ceramics, bones, and nails with a toothbrush and separates them into categories. Each bag of artifacts corresponds to a context from the field, its location in vertical and horizontal space. She’s learning to identify the type or style of ceramics—which helps us determine the date of each deposit—but only occasionally needs confirmation of her identification skills. Lisa is processing the artifacts and the information that is going to aid in our research. She’s discovering that right now.
While Lisa works, I’ve been sitting at one of the lab computers, digitizing a drawing of our most thought-provoking discovery this year. When we opened up our units this summer, and instructed our field school students in how to excavate them, we told them what we expected to find. Still, the unopened unit is a source of untapped potential; like the briefcase, anything could be under the dirt, whatever the archaeologist can imagine. For every excavator, it will be different. We chose to place two side-by-side 5 x 5 ft. units in front of where we suspected the doorway of one living quarter to be. We hoped to find continuing evidence of West African spiritual practices.
Outside the doorway to a slave quarter attached to the Greenhouse on the same property, there was what is known as a spirit bundle or cache. They consist of assemblages of found and re-purposed objects that are part of a tradition that can be traced back to religious practices in West Africa. Material culturalists have found themes in African art such as motion, containment, and flash manifesting in wheels, bottles, mirrors, and boundaries (see Thompson 1984). In caches, they often include white objects, blue glass bottles, iron nails or other forms of metal. These objects are the vessels of sympathetic magic, which understands certain materials to possess power over the spiritual and natural worlds. What we found went beyond what we imagined, and we’re still unsure of what we’ve discovered. We still need to process.
Several round, flat artifacts lay on a horizontal axis in the two units, just inside where the quarter would have been and underneath the raised floor. There were the bases of blue bottles, one crushed, but many still intact. There was a spoked iron wheel and flattened metal cans. One area contained white objects. When we saw these things together, knowing why we were digging under the doorway in the first place, we stopped. Two field school students, Norma and Katie, measured and mapped the assemblage and we sent photographs to experts. Dr. Robin Poynor at the University of Florida advised us over e-mail, and we tucked our discovery away until next year, when we’ll hopefully better know how to proceed. Combined with deposits of iron farming implements we uncovered last year, these objects may be a shrine or alter to Ogun, a deity of iron and the forge. One piece of a bottle is molded in a way that divides it into four quarters, possibly invoking a crossroads or cosmogram. Now I’m tracing the drawing on the computer so that we can clean the image, highlight particular aspects, and make sense of what we’ve found.
When did we discover the cache? Was it when we first noticed a number of round objects lying flat? Am I discovering it while I digitize my students’ drawing? Until we learn more, I don’t know that we have discovered it yet. The powerful sense of discovery that thrives in archaeology runs the risk of turning the artifacts into MacGuffins, the driving reason in the plot of our story. Discoveries draw in public attention and media, but they don’t tell much about archaeology and the process of learning what the artifacts mean after we leave the field. Like any other trope, the MacGuffin is a device that can be used to great effect, and as a graduate student with an interest in public archaeology, I’m still uneasily struggling with how to do it.
The discovery is not the artifact. Discovering is not a moment of finding the artifact. Discovery is an ongoing process of conversations and interactions that take the artifact from an object to a symbol. We could have easily seen bottle bases, pieces of iron, white ceramics, and taken them as unrelated scatter. By seeing if they fit together, we’re chasing a story where these artifacts are representative of a resistive religion that proliferated in the African Diaspora during slavery and beyond. That is the discovery, not the objects.
We might have discovered the two slave quarters three years ago, but we have rediscovered them every year since, and we continue to do so.
Archaeology in Annapolis maintains a blog, where you can learn more about Wye House and our excavations. If you can help us with our discovery and understanding of this assemblage, please let us know!
Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Y Tilley
1992 Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London; New York: Routledge.
Thompson, Robert Farris
1984 Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books.