By Sara Rivers Cofield, Curator of Federal Collections, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum
When a committee of archeologists selected “The Magic and Mystery of Maryland Archeology” as the theme for the 2019 Maryland Archeology Month, they were not thinking about Harry Potter or pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. “Magic” in anthropological terms, is anything people do to try to influence the supernatural. That includes personified supernatural forces like gods, ghosts, and ancestral spirits, and impersonal supernatural forces like luck. Usually when people try to influence the supernatural there is a clear end in mind and a ritualized procedure to follow. When you pick a penny up and say, “find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck,” an anthropologist would classify that as a “magic” ritual.
Archeology is a sub-discipline of anthropology in the U.S., so we use the anthropological definition of magic for select artifacts that were once considered objects of power. There is a joke of sorts in archeology that any artifact of unknown purpose must be “ritual,” which is really code for “I have no other explanation.” That joke was born out of legitimate criticism, but it has scared some people away from considering ritual and magic in archeology. The burden of proof that something is “magic” is very high. However, it is a disservice to our understanding of past belief systems if we fail to consider possible ritual and magic uses of artifacts, especially if the context calls for it.
A perfect example is a well-worn horseshoe from Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum’s public archeology site, the Smith’s St. Leonard plantation, which was occupied ca. 1711-1754. The obvious default interpretation of a horseshoe is that it was for shoeing a horse, especially if the horseshoe is worn enough to show it was used. However, historical records indicate that it was rare to shoe horses in Maryland prior to the 1750s because the soft clay soils did not require it. Over 200 units have been excavated at the site, resulting in over 450 boxes of artifacts from the main house, a kitchen, a laundry, at least three slave quarter buildings, a store house, and a stable. Only one horseshoe was found, and it was not near the stable, but in a kitchen cellar that was filled with debris from a hearth remodeling episode.
Horseshoes have a long history as objects placed on thresholds, near hearths, or in ritual concealments to ward off evil or bring good luck. Furthermore, some of these beliefs hold that found horseshoes, such as those thrown from a hoof along a roadway, were the ones with power. For example, witches could not pass through a threshold guarded by an old horseshoe until they had traveled all the roads the horse had traveled, and by then it would be daylight. Thus, history and context suggest that the Smith’s St. Leonard horseshoe was a magical object that once protected the hearth.
It is not always possible to determine whether an everyday object was put to a magical purpose, and that is where the “mystery” of the “Magic and Mystery” theme comes in. There are many finds that might be evidence of magic, but there is no way to know with certainty. It is still worthwhile to consider the possibility though because it calls for an understanding of how the people who used these artifacts viewed the world. Ultimately, having that knowledge of how people in the past thought and behaved is what archeology is all about.
Interested in participating in excavations at Smith’s St. Leonard? The 2019 Public Archaeology program runs from May 7 to June 29. For more information visit http://www.jefpat.org/publicarchaeology.html.