17 Chapters
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12. Dexterous Creation: Material Manifestations of Instrumental Symbolism in the Americas

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Christopher C. Fennell

In a larger-scale study, entitled Crossroads and Cosmologies, I examined multiple data sets of material culture uncovered at African American occupation sites in the historic period (Fennell 2007b). That larger study utilized theories concerning modes of symbolic expression, formation and maintenance of social group identities, and the role of individual creativity and innovation. I applied these analytic frameworks to the past creation and use of material expressions of core symbols within the diasporas of particular African and European cultures, such as the BaKongo, Yoruba, Fon, and Palatine German, among others. I explored the divergent ways those creative processes played out at sites in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. A multitude of independently developed beliefs and practices from Africa and Europe came to meet at the many crossroads of the Americas.

The selected case study examined in this chapter involves theoretical concepts that I developed in Crossroads and Cosmologies. Anthropologists have articulated concepts concerning the operations of “core” symbols within culture groups, which have also been referred to as “key” or “dominant” symbols (Ortner 1973; Schneider 1980; Turner 1970, 1973). Such core symbols express fundamental elements of a culture group’s cosmology and sense of identity within the world. Core symbols are communicated in myriad ways, including expression in ritual performances, spoken words, and tangible renderings in material culture (Fennell 2007b).

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8. “Instruments of Obeah”: The Significance of Ritual Objects in the Jamaican Legal System, 1760 to the Present

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Danielle N. Boaz

Many scholars have sifted through colonial documents searching for the “subaltern” voice of enslaved and oppressed individuals in the Americas. These researchers, as shown in the preceding chapter, for example, have attempted to uncover the spiritual practices of African and African-descended populations through deep and critical readings of “outsider accounts,” such as court records, legislative debates, statutes, journals, and newspapers. Unlike many of these studies seeking to reveal the rituals and beliefs of populations that did not document these practices for themselves, I utilize these official records to understand the objectives and strategies of the colonial government in describing and proscribing certain items and actions associated with African religion and ritual practices in the Caribbean. I believe that in order to analyze the origins and development of African culture in the Western Hemisphere, we must first understand the colonial definition, categorization, and suppression of these acts. I argue that the preservation, attenuation, and transformation of African Diaspora religious and ritual practices were shaped through interactions with the legal and media institutions of the colonial government. I focus in this chapter on the efforts of the state of Jamaica to suppress the practice of Obeah (a term used by the British to describe African-Caribbean medico-religious practices). I demonstrate that Obeah objects constituted the subject and focus of these suppression efforts, and the contestations that ensued between the state and Obeah practitioners.

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10. Mundane or Spiritual? The Interpretation of Glass Bottle Containers Found on Two Sites of the African Diaspora

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Matthew Reeves

Archaeologists of the African Diaspora have been drawn to the study of artifacts with potential spiritual use because of the many possibilities that these objects offer for a deep understanding of Black Atlantic cultural formation. The presence of such items on sites has been heralded as representing everything from African survival to resistance against hegemonic patriarchy (Leone 2005; Orser 1994; Stine et al. 1996; Vlach 1993; Wilkie 1997). Many of the scholars involved in this search have called for careful consideration of the archaeological contexts from which they were recovered (Wilkie 1997). In addition, researchers have also called for interdisciplinary examination of ethnohistorical texts to allow for interpretation (Leone and Fry 1999). In this chapter, I consider how the steps from observation to interpretation are enacted, specifically, how we take an otherwise commonly occurring artifact, such as glass bottles, to determine whether their placement at the site was intentional or a secondary result of disposal, and finally whether the intentional placement reflects their use as spiritual objects or simply for mundane purposes, such as storage. What makes bottle glass an interesting case study is its common occurrence on historic sites. Due to the multiple uses for bottles, their particular use and contents can be a bit enigmatic (Smith 2008: 22–28), but with proper study of context, it is possible to differentiate potential spiritual use of such bottles from those of more routine origins.

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9. Charms and Spiritual Practitioners: Negotiating Power Dynamics in an Enslaved African Community in Jamaica

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Paula Saunders

In recent times, the focus of African Diaspora archaeological research has moved to examine the spiritual-based practices of people of African descent throughout the Diaspora (see, e.g., K. L. Brown 1994, 2001, 2004; Fennell 2007b; Russell 1997; Stine et al. 1996; Wilkie 1997, on spirituality and ritual paraphernalia). The results of these studies often produce more questions than answers, and demonstrate the many complexities involved in examining such places of ritual activity, as well as the impossibility of creating standardized theories and methodologies to deal with such complex sites. As a result, archaeologists are still attempting to find ways to address the use of spirituality as one of the means whereby oppressed women, men, and children in the Diaspora negotiated power, resistance, and discourse inherent within the colonial state, as well as how these practices may be seen in the archaeological record.

This chapter presents some findings from the enslaved village at Orange Vale coffee plantation, located in Portland, Jamaica. This research applies an interdisciplinary approach by combining documentary, archaeological, and oral sources. In addition to information on daily living conditions and settlement patterns within the enslaved African village, additional findings include (1) the recognition of various levels of power negotiation, and (2) clues to the enslaved people’s ritualized spiritual practices through their use of charms. Further, this research underscores the importance of including descendant communities throughout the archaeological process, as well as the need to engage oral traditions in the interpretation of past societies, particularly for marginalized groups excluded from “official”—that is, written—stories of the past.

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6. Rituals of Iron in the Black Atlantic World

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Candice Goucher

For the African blacksmith and iron-smelter, technology was not distinct from ritual practice. Handling and hammering hot iron was not only dangerous but also afforded ironworkers access to economic and political power through their critical control of the supply of weapons and tools that ensured the continuity of life itself. Ritual in this context also became the voice of collective memory. Making iron was far more than abstract chemical or physical processes. No furnace was built nor smithy constructed without seeking and acknowledging the assistance of ancestors and spirits through specific ritual acts. Sometimes the ancestral references were as concrete as they were direct. Iron smelting required control over the natural elements of clay, ores, fuels, temperature, and airflow, as well as the metaphysical forces of unseen realms. The ritual embodiment of technological practice not only facilitated African technology transfer to the Americas; it also shaped the meaning and memory of iron in the Black Atlantic.

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