Subfloor Pits

Collection of artifacts resting at the base of a subfloor pit in Structure 2.There has been much ongoing discussion of the nature and function of subfloor pits, especially as they relate to African-American housing. One of the subfloor pits at Southall's Quarter (Site 44JC969) appeared to contain intact deposits at its base and offers an opportunity to contribute additional information to this debate. This particular feature, a subfloor pit beneath Structure 2, had a collection of artifacts resting on an area of organic soil in the northeast corner of the pit, including two unbroken wine bottles, a broken wine bottle, scissors, a wig curler, a smoking pipe, shell, a knife blade, and the largest amount of animal bone recovered from any feature on the site.

One of the research issues explored during the excavation of this site concerned subfloor pits and the implications of their use. The question of the function served by these subfloor pits is an important one. They may have served as root cellars, storage areas, or places of concealment for personal items; most likely, these pits served a combination of these functions. It has been suggested that the temporal and spatial variation of these features can be closely linked to the social dynamics of Chesapeake slavery, reflecting slave kinship ties and the emergence of kin-based housing during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Fraser Neiman (1997:6–7) has interpreted subfloor pits as intentionally built "safe-deposit boxes." He postulates that, in some cases, the advent of kin-based housing led to the diminishing number and size of subfloor pits and suggests that subfloor pits should occur least frequently in single houses that are physically separated from houses of non-kin, thereby easing concerns over security of personal items.

Artifacts at base of subfloor pitThese expectations may be at least partially borne out at Southall's Quarter. While only one deep subfloor pit and one shallow pit were identified in Structure 1 and only one subfloor pit was identified in Structure 3, nine such pits were identified in association with Structure 2. Furthermore, the deep subfloor pit in Structure 1 is larger than those in Structure 2, which appears to be an earlier structure. If the cabins at Southall's Quarter are kin-based single-family dwellings, then why do we see so many subfloor pits in Structure 2? It may be that Structure 2, the earlier structure, did not initially function as a single-family dwelling, but housed unrelated slaves that, under Neiman's hypothesis, would use subfloor pits for the protection of personal items. In fact, the position of the subfloor pits in Structure 2 hints at the partitioning of the structure into two rooms. Feature 67, a subfloor pit in front of the hearth in Structure 2 that cuts both earlier subfloor pits, may represent a later cellar excavated when the building was switched to use as a family dwelling, perhaps even at the same time that Structures 1 and 3 were built as kin-based single-family dwellings. Even though Structure 1 may have been built later, Structure 2 likely was still standing because both structures are oriented exactly the same (which, by extension, raises a possibility that Structure 3 may not have been built at the same time as Structure 1, due to the difference in orientation). The possibility that the southern portion of the slave quarter, around Structures 1 and 3, was constructed and occupied later than Structure 2 is further supported by the more frequent occurrence of pearlware sherds in test units near Structures 1 and 3.

Increasingly, though, subfloor pits are being viewed as having multiple functions. As Patricia Samford (1999:71) and others have noted, one such function may have been as ancestor shrines, with antecedents in West Africa. Ancestors in West African societies are seen as intermediaries between the living and the higher deities who can be influenced to enhance the well-being of the living, and shrines are places where this negotiation can take place through the honoring of ancestors. Archaeologists are beginning to reinterpret what were initially thought anomalous artifacts unearthed on eighteenth-century slave sites, such as pierced or incised spoons, white stones, fossilized shells, pieces of chalk, and virtually intact wine bottles, tobacco pipes, and iron tools. In her discussion of regional patterns in the Chesapeake slave trade, Lorena Walsh (2001) notes that such objects demonstrably had spiritual significance among contemporary West Africans and, it is now being suggested, may have been employed as protective or healing charms and perhaps used in recreated rituals honoring ancestors. Many slaves on this portion of the Virginia's Lower Peninsula were originally from the West African region known as the Bight of Biafra (encompassing eastern Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon). At least one local archaeological site includes possible remains of a West African ancestor shrine, a root cellar excavated beneath one of the quarter houses at Utopia, a plantation outside Williamsburg. The pit contained artifacts such as cow or horse bone, fossilized scallop shells, a kaolin pipe bowl, wrought iron nails, wine bottle glass, a piece of quartzite, and tin-enameled earthenware sherds concentrated in a mounded area in the center of the pit, objects (along with the white color of most) that link them to Ibo spiritual traditions. Moreover, high concentrations of grape tannin (from grape skins) also were detected in this pit, suggesting that libations of wine or brandy had been poured into it. Samford notes that the composition of this assemblage bears a striking resemblance to objects associated with West African spiritual traditions in several ways, including the color of many of the artifacts. Nearly half of the artifacts are white, a sacred color symbolizing purity and the Supreme Being in many West African traditional religions. White stones were used in West African ancestor shrines, and such stones and white ceramic fragments have been found associated with similar archaeological assemblages in Maryland. Furthermore, pollen analysis in this feature identified high levels of grape pollen, suggesting that wine may have been poured onto the mounded area. Today, Igbo in the Ohafia region of Nigeria pour palm wine into small holes cut into earthen floors of their homes, sending this libation directly into the mouths of their ancestors. In comparing Utopia with Southall's Quarter, the assemblage found at the base of the subfloor pit beneath Structure 2 included many white-colored items, such as animal bone, shell, and a wig curler. Though pollen analysis was not conducted, the soil in which these artifacts were recovered (along with the wine bottles, scissors, and pipe) was dark and highly organic, suggesting that similar libations may have been poured here as well.

Shrine-like arrangement of artifacts at the Eden House site in eastern North Carolina.Similar arrangements have been identified in North Carolina as well. During investigations conducted by Coastal Carolina Research, Inc. (Lautzenheiser et al. 1998) at the Eden House Site in the North Carolina coastal plain region, one of four subfloor pits cut beneath the floor of a shed addition to an eighteenth-century slave dwelling contained artifacts very similar to those in one of the subfloor pits at Southall's Quarter. Feature 3 at the Eden House site contained a pair of iron scissors and a white clay pipe placed on either side of two complete wine bottles resting in the northeast corner of the pit; two crossed iron axe heads were found in the northwest corner, with a glass decanter and two more intact wine bottles found in the center. This corresponds rather closely with the subfloor pit in Structure 2 at Southall's Quarter. The placement of artifacts in the northeast corner parallels findings from a number of other slave-related sites in Virginia and Maryland. Although the significance of this placement is not known, researchers have suggested that it may be related to the northeastern quadrant of the Bakongo cosmogram, corresponding to birth and life, and the scissors and axe heads could signify the protective powers of iron.

In other contexts at Southall's Quarter, evidence of ancestor shrines was either disturbed or much less formalized; for example, a spoon with an X-like mark was recovered from one test unit near Structure 2; a spoon with a pierced end was found in the chimney construction/support feature for Structure 1; and another subfloor pit in Structure 2 (Feature 67) contained a small amount of fossilized shell. Fossilized shell, locally available from a 3.5 million-year-old deposit known as the Yorktown Formation, was found arranged on top of the mounded area in the Utopia feature. It may be that an earlier ancestor shrine was destroyed when Feature 67, a subfloor pit that cuts through Feature 66 in front of the Structure 2 hearth, was established.

The results at Southall's Quarter fit well with other archaeological excavations of African-American slave housing, as well as with past and present West African shrines. These parallels are noteworthy, and add to the growing evidence that West African spiritual traditions remained an important part of African-American personal identity into the late eighteenth century. A particularly important facet of the archaeological results at Southall's Quarter is that the possible ancestor shrine in the subfloor pit beneath Structure 2 contains elements that are in evidence at both the Eden House site and the Utopia site, but are not completely consistent with either. This result emphasizes both the varied adaptation of these social practices to forge a new sense of identity from West African social systems shattered by enslavement, and the true diversity within what is too often characterized in a monolithic fashion as the "African American community" in the eighteenth century.