“Religious Freedom”

The founding of America, as it’s taught in most public schools, says that one of the primary tenets of the immigrants travelling here was religious freedom, and that this has always been a land where everyone is free to practice their own faith. Of course anyone who’s been paying attention knows that this isn’t the case. Religion is more often used as a means of control rather than a choice freely made. Settlers pushed their Christian faith on the Natives already residing here and then did the same to the Africans brought here forcibly to work on plantations and in homes. Those Africans were prohibited from practicing their faiths not only because to be not Christian made one into a “heathen” but also because their new owners feared that access to this faith would unite them and make them more difficult to control. However, a brief look at the archaeological record makes it clear that telling someone to abandon their faith, even threatening them, does not always make it so.

At a number of different plantations there is ample evidence in the deposits found in the slave cabins that shows the Africans who lived there continuing to honor and practice their beliefs. At the Hume plantation, Hermitage plantation, Garrison plantation, and many others, deposits in and around around the slave dwellings show evidence of conjure bags intended for calling on protective spirits, items placed at doorways and under windowsills to keep the home safe, items representative of fire near the hearth and much more. There is even evidence of animal sacrifices at some of the sites. This continued following of the beliefs and religious practices they brought with them from their homeland shows a remarkable brand of persistence and subtle resistance even at times when the white slave owners appeared to have all the power. To me this information is extremely important to bring to light because it adds depth of character to the single story of African slave life in America. It’s a story of pride and strength even in the face of terrible adversity and it bears remembering.

Visualizing a Memory

This week in class we told a personal story using a two minute video. I chose to focus on a particular painting of mine that always makes me think of a childhood home and why those memories are bittersweet. This was a very difficult assignment for me because I am awful with technology! The video is simple but I hope it tells my story effectively. Enjoy:

Mysterious Owl Bottle

The past couple of weeks our class has been working on identifying glass bottles found at archaeological sites by examining an assemblage recovered from the former tidelands off of the former 6th Ave South viaduct in Seattle. Most of the bottles are exactly what you’d expect: beer bottles, medicine, condiments, that kind of thing. But a couple of the bottles present more of a mystery.

One such bottle is the one I’ve just been calling the “owl bottle.” For the most part it’s not a very exciting bottle, it’s tall, clear, and cylindrical with a wide opening and some light patination, but on the base of the bottle is an owl perched on a crescent moon and the word “trademark” is embossed within the moon. When I first saw this mark I got excited, partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because I figured it would make the bottle really easy to identify. I was very wrong.

The closest I came to identifying this mark was a reference to the logo for Gillet’s High Grade Extract, a company that does indeed use an owl on a crescent moon for its logo. Unfortunately the owl is slightly different, the word trademark is not present within the moon (at least not on any pictures I could find), and the owl is shown on the side of the Gillet bottles rather than the base. I thought maybe that it was a one-off that they had manufactured beforing changing their minds about which direction to go with the logo but there are so many differences that there’s just no way for me to be sure. One thing I do know is I’m going to be looking oddly closely at any bottles with owls I see in the future and maybe someday I’ll know the answer!

Death in the Harsh Light of Day

Visiting a graveyard is always a somber affair, the clouds in the sky lend an ominous cast to the environment and even the cawing of the crows sounds muted by the pall of death hanging over the landscape… At least, that’s how popular media says it’s supposed to feel, an irony that doesn’t escape me as I wander the Calvary Cemetery in the blinding sunlight bombarded by construction noises and the unintelligible shouting through a loud speaker from some event happening at the nearby University Village. Even the crows sound loud and cheerful and there’s a large, bright notice about an ongoing project to make more room in the graveyard. I am informed by the notice that this is “a wonderful opportunity for your family.” The tone of the notice causes me to feel that the person writing it had only barely restrained themselves from the use of an exclamation point at the end.

Over the past couple weeks our Historical Archaeology class has been looking at gravestone typologies and the way society views and interacts with death. The specific graveyard we chose to look at is connected to a Catholic church which means that the stones are decorated primarily with crosses and other religious insignia. Upon breaking down the gravestones by date and type I found that most of the stones over the last hundred years have been fairly simple, mostly flat with some classic tablet style stones mixed in. Not every stone fits this category but enough to make it significant when looking at how we view death. The earlier stones are bigger and often more elaborately decorated implying that we are now honoring our dead in different ways. This doesn’t mean we care less simply that it has taken a different form. I also found that the number of deaths shown in the graves we looked at increased dramatically during the early 1900’s, with the most deaths in the 30’s specifically. When I went went looking for a  reason for this I couldn’t find one in the historical record. Although this is within the Great Depression the sources I found actually indicated that mortality rates went down during that time and not up. This means that, rather than saying something about death rates, this likely says something about the rising and falling popularity of this specific church within the community as a place to bury loved ones. It would be interesting to do a further study and see if the number of graves at the nearest secular graveyard went up at the same rate the ones at this Catholic graveyard went down.

Garbology 101

Looking at trash is nothing new for archaeologists, the human past is littered with refuse and archaeologists use those leavings to determine a variety of things about past societies. However, it wasn’t until recently that archaeologists began looking at modern garbage for our research. Looking at the detritus of current societies offers a number of insights that we are unable to gather when looking at trash heaps or middens that are as much as a hundred years old, much less thousands. This is because there is so much of it to look at. Partly because humans have started making more waste than ever before and partly because types of waste like plant matter have not yet decomposed beyond the point of recognition. Packaging labels are still legible, not yet faded with time, meaning we don’t have to speculate as to where people are shopping and what they’re buying and eating. Which in our consumer driven society is a huge part of our culture.
For our Historical Archaeology class this past week we were asked to collect and record our own garbage over a seven day period. Stinky, but super interesting! Even just looking at my own garbage was illuminating and I was shocked by how much waste my family generated over the course of a week. Looking at such a small sample as compared to much larger garbology studies like the one at the University of Arizona might not seem worthwhile since there isn’t as much we can glean from this limited amount of trash, but there are still a number of conclusions that can be made. And even if it only has the outcome of making one or two students think twice before they throw something away that doesn’t sound too bad.

About Aloura

Hey! My name is Aloura and I’m a first-year transfer student studying Archaeology here at the University of Washington. I’m a Seattle native and I’m very excited to welcome back the rain in the coming months! I’ve always been in love with archaeology and during the course of my studies I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to participate in a number of archaeological surveys as well as several digs in the area. One of these digs gave me the incredible opportunity to present my findings at the Northwest Anthropological Conference. My archaeological interests are focused in mythology and linguistics and I look forward to adding to my knowledge base in those areas as I pursue my degree. I also enjoy my nerdy comic book pursuits and frequently attend the many nerd-related conventions we host here in Seattle!