June 7, 2013
But is it Valuable?
Archaeologists have moved from the Armoury site to begin an excavation at Market Square. Before leaving, we wanted to share some information about an artifact found early this spring, and pictured in an April 12th 2013 blog posting. The pierced coin, shown above, post-dates the Armoury but may shed light on some of the property’s later residents. In this post, Staff Archaeologist Andrew Edwards explains the significance of this find.
Since the first of the year, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists have recovered two silver Spanish half-reals that were pierced so that they could have been worn as jewelry or amulets, or perhaps sewn into clothing for concealment. Both coins were minted in Mexico in the first quarter of the 19th century as shown by the “Mo” mark on the reverse. One of the coins was recovered from a site just beyond the Historic Area, near Merchants’ Square. The other, shown above, was found in at the Armoury this past spring. Unfortunately, both coins were found in what archaeologists call “disturbed contexts”, or from soil that has been mixed up or compromised in some way so that the artifacts within the stratum are mixed by date and origin. Plowing, for example, effectively makes one layer out of several.
Pierced coins have long been associated with African Americans, particularly enslaved African Americans who may have worn them as ornaments or talismans. Theresa Singleton, in her 1995 review of the state of historical archaeology in North America mentions that several sites have yielded pierced coins, frequently of Spanish provenance, that were hung around the neck or ankle as charms for luck, a cure for rheumatism, or to ward away evil spirits[i]. For example, a white metal medallion and a pierced U.S. dime were recovered from African American contexts at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee[ii], and several pierced coins were also found in Alexandria, Virginia[iii], Monticello[iv], and Harmony Hall in Georgia[v].
According to archaeologists Laurie Wilkie, Paul Farnsworth, and David Palmer, many punched coins have been recovered from slave sites in Louisiana. These coins are thought to have held protective powers and have their origins in West Africa where they were commonly worn to defend the wearer from harmful spirits. They also discuss “birth coins” which bear the date of a child’s birth and are worn around his or her neck for protection and well-being.[vi]
Numerous pierced Spanish coins from various contexts have been found by Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists over the years. While it is doubtful that all of the coins found here were owned by people of African origin, many undoubtedly were, adding to the already rich cultural compendium of objects used exclusively by Williamsburg’s “other half.”
Contributed by Andrew Edwards, Staff Archaeologist
[i] Singleton, Theresa, 1995 “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America” , Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24 (1995). Pp. 119-140.
[ii] Russell, Aaron, 1997 “Material Culture and African-American Spirituality at the Hermitage”, Historical Archaeology, vol. 31, No. 2 (1997) pp. 63-80.
[iv] DAACS website, accessed 3/15/2013.
[v] Singleton, Theresa, 1991 “The Archaeology of Slave Life”, in Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South, Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr. and Kym S. Rice, editors. Museum of the Confederacy and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
[vi] Wilkie, Laurie, Paul Farnsworth, and David T. Palmer, 2010 “African American Archaeology”, in Archaeology of Louisiana, Mark A. Rees, editor. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.