Archeological Discovery in the Slave Quarters

Four bottles discovered in the South Slave Quarters
Four bottles discovered in the South Slave Quarters


Discovery of an Enslaved Family’s Subfloor Storage Pit and Religious/Magical Shrine at the South Slave Quarters of Arlington House

In 2021, the National Park Service concluded an extensive rehabilitation at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. Philanthropist David Rubenstein provided funding for this major project. The rehabilitation improved visitor access and interpretation. It also restored the early 19th century mansion, dependencies, and immediate grounds. The buildings and land were once part of George Washington Parke Custis’ plantation. Built between 1802-1818, the site later became home to Custis' son-in-law, Robert E. Lee.

The rehabilitation project saw work occur in the west room of the South Dependency. This room had housed an enslaved family. Archeological investigations took place in portions of the room years earlier. Archeologists found artifacts representing the enslaved family's household goods. These included clothing buttons, ceramic dish pieces, food remains like animal bones, and even a toy porcelain doll hand. The construction crews working in the west room during the rehabilitation made a more surprising discovery. They had removed a 20th century reconstructed brick flooring set in a sand bedding. While cleaning up the sand and modern fill dirt under it, they dug a bit too deep in a spot. The workers uncovered four glass bottles clustered in historic period soils below this level. Park archeologists intervened and arranged a work stoppage. After doing this, the archeologists explored the unanticipated find.

A woman with two younger children
Selina Gray and two of her daughters.


The archeological investigations identified a subfloor storage pit near the fireplace hearth. This pit had contained the bottles which were most likely associated with the enslaved family of Selina and Thornton Gray. They occupied the west room quarters in the mid-nineteenth century. Analysis of the findings determined that the pit functioned as a type of magical or religious shrine. It contained what likely was an enslaved peoples’ “spirit bundle” of artifacts. The four bottles were part of this bundle and likely “conjuring bottles.” The placement of a spirit bundle or conjure bottles as part of a religious or magical shrine could serve various purposes. They could ward off evil. They could promote self-preservation. They could cast spells to harm others. They could host protective Nkisi spirits or entrap malevolent entities. They could function as a talisman and act of defiance to combat the harsh and de-humanizing realities of slavery and to safeguard the future.

Subfloor storage pits are a feature often found in dwellings of enslaved people. Archeologists have explained these features in the past as serving various purposes. These include everything from utilitarian to sacred purposes. Enslaved people may have used them as food storage pits or for storage of personal items. The pits may have been hiding places for stolen goods. They may have functioned as religious or magical shrine-like chambers.

The unusual find of the four bottles and pit hints that there were likely West African religious connections and creolized Hoodoo Rootwork religious/folk magic customs at Arlington. It also demonstrates that enslaved people resisted their bondage and persevered for freedom. Most notable about the four intact glass bottles discovered was that all were pointing northward. The location of the pit and the positioning of the bottles within it are highly suggestive of a shrine with magical or religious powers. All four bottles were placed side by side with their openings pointing northward, as if toward freedom. The pit was also located to the north and east of the fireplace and hearth. This could be symbolic, as east pointed toward a new day’s sunrise or toward home in Africa. These cardinal directions suggest important spiritual imagery in the enslaved people’s lives. They could also have ties to the northeastern quadrant (corresponding to birth and life) of the West African Bakongo cosmogram. The cosmogram depicts the relationship between the spiritual and physical worlds and the life cycle.

Events of the mid-19th century proved to be very traumatic and uncertain for the enslaved people at Arlington. This was the period when Selina and Thornton Gray and their family lived in the South Dependency. Among those events was the death of George Washington Parke Custis. Following his death, there was confusion and uncertainty whether his will freed the enslaved people. Though some believed they were to be immediately freed, the will actually delayed freedom for a maximum of five years. This realization resulted in an increase of escape attempts. Families were separated when enslaved people were hired out to other plantations. In 1861, the outbreak of the Civil War led to even more uncertainty. Would occupying Union soldiers be sympathetic to the enslaved people's plight? Questions about their enslavement and whether they would be free may have motivated the Grays to engage the supernatural. They may have viewed this as a way to resist bondage and safeguard their future.

The National Park Service prepared a Technical Report that documents the archeological findings. It includes context around the historical events. It also offers potential explanations for the creation of the subfloor storage pit.

Last updated: February 3, 2022

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