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Lost, Tossed, and Found

Clues to African- American Life at Manassas National Battlefield Park

Aerial view shows the stone foundations, excavated domestic servant quarters and surrounding trees.
Destroyed by fire in 1863, only Portici's foundation remains. Aerial view of Portici excavations, showing plantation land.

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Using photographs, illustrations, and maps, this exhibit focuses on the African-American experience, in slavery and freedom, in the immediate vicinity of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Archeological survey and excavations at the battlefield resulted in the discovery of structural remains and a diversity of artifacts associated with nineteenth-century African-American life. The architectural features range from communal, antebellum-slave quarters (Brownsville) to post-Civil War single family houses (the Nash Site). Artifacts include an African heirloom – a carved, ebony finger ring – ceramic gaming pieces used in the African-derived game of Mancala, hand-built, low-fired earthenware bowls used and, perhaps, made by African-Americans, blue glass beads worn or sewn on clothing to protect the wearer against "the evil eye," and quartz crystals possibly used to predict the future or in curing rites. Analysis of the architectural features and artifacts provides new insights into the adaptation of African slaves to their New World environment and to the survival of African-inspired customs and traditions in the post-Civil War period.

Information and objects from the National Park Service archeological investigations have contributed directly to recent scholarly research and public interpretation, such as the Museum of the Confederacy's special exhibit "Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South," the accompanying book of the same title published jointly by the Museum of the Confederacy and the University Press of Virginia, and a special exhibit titled "Pitchers, Pots & Pipkins: Clues to Plantation Life," sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

Portici

Black and White Photograph of a woman standing on the front porch of a large, double-chimney house separated by a rail fence from a much smaller house.
Historic photograph of Lewis home at the Portici Plantation

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Plantation size was often measured by the number of slaves owned. With an average of 20 slaves, Portici was a "middling plantation" that evolved from an earlier farm, Pohoke, about 1820.

Three finger rings, one whole and two broken.
Finger rings of bone, ebony, and horn

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Destroyed by fire in 1863, only Portici's foundation remains. Archeologists found evidence of domestic servant quarters in cellar excavations. Unearthed from Portici, the carved finger ring of ebony (center) likely came from Africa with its owner, while rings of domestic horn (left) or bone (right) were fashioned here by African-Americans.

A reddish brown wedge about two inches in length.
Wedge reworked from a horseshoe

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Archeologists suspect Portici's resident carpenter, a slave named Henry Grimes, reworked this horseshoe heel into a wedge.






Brownsville

A grid showing location of structure remains.
Brownsville "Structure 1" Plan

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Archeological evidence suggests "Structure 1" at Brownsville, another middling plantation, served as a multi-family slave quarters.

A brown L-shaped pipe bowl with an irregular opening on top.
Clay pipe bowl

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Drawing of a cross-section of a hand-made, reedstem clay tobacco pipe showing the hollow inner space.
A hand-made, reed-stem clay tobacco pipe suggests local manufacture by African-Americans.

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African-American Colonoware

Pieces of brown, unglazed earthenware pieced into a bowl.
Colonoware Bowl

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Fragments of hand-made, unglazed earthenware bowls found at excavated antebellum sites are believed to have been made by slave artisans.

Four irregularly shaped colonoware vessel sherds on a black background.
Colonoware vessel sherds.

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Glass Beads and Gaming Pieces

Three blue and one orange round glass beads.
Not just adornment, amber and blue glass beads uncovered at various slave quarters were probably worn to ward off evil.
At bottom are four edge-worn, geometrically shaped ceramics. Two pebbles in the middle and one rectangular bone piece at the top.
Possible Mancala game pieces.

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Excavation at slave's quarters yielded various objects used for entertainment. Among them are these edge-worn, geometrically shaped ceramics (bottom), pebbles (middle), and bone (top) markers, believed to be associated with Mancala, a game originating in Africa.





The Nash Site

Photograph of a rectangle of chimney footing stones in a building outline. A black card near the footing marks the site.
Nash Site excavations with chimney footing in the foreground. Click image to enlarge.

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At this post-war, single-family cabin site archeologists confirmed African-American occupation and a continuity of cultural traditions upon discovery of a blue bead and mancala gaming pieces.

Nash Site plan view with dimensions of structure drawn out and labeled. Ash lens, stone piers, and chimney footing also labeled.
Plan view of the site.

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Four dark brown and yellow quartz crystals on top row. Two black and dark gray quartz crystals on bottom left. Next to that is a beige, arrow-shaped, prehistoric quartz point. On far bottom right is a dark brown fragment of galena mineral.
Mancala pieces.

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Quartz crystals, a prehistoric quartz point, and a galena fragment (to the left of the dart point) were found clustered near the chimney footing. These invite speculation of a collective purpose such as a conjuring ritual.






Robinson House

Black and white photograph of multi-part white wooden house. There are barrels and wood planks next to the house and two young African American boys stand in the front.
Robinson House, post-1888.

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Mr. James "Gentleman Jim" Robinson, an educated freedman, prospered on his small farm, enabling him to buy the freedom of his wife and daughters. Additions to the house and family appear in this post-1888 view. Unlike his neighbors, Robinson proved his loyalty to the Union and received compensation for war claims.

Last updated: April 16, 2020