Archaeology and Cultural Symbols

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Luke Frigon ‘18

In his piece “Reassessing the ‘Sankofa Symbol’ in New York’s African Burial Ground,” Erik Seeman draws two main conclusions: 1) early African Americans burial practices were substantially influenced by Anglo culture, and that 2) the Sankofa Symbol has a much more in depth and varied history and meaning than it’s taken for at face value. The first of these two statements is one that seems obvious when Seeman presents us with the facts. He tells us that most of the remains exhumed at New York’s African Burial Ground were buried exactly like their white counterparts. 352 of 384 were buried in coffins, 393 of 419 were buried in a single internment, 367 of 365 were buried with their head facing West, and 269 of 269 were buried lying face up. This is exactly how virtually all New Yorkers were buried at the time. Along with this, a vast majority of the African burials were done so without grave goods (pipes, ornaments, jewelry, cufflinks, etc.), mirroring Euro-American practices.

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The second conclusion that Seeman draws is worth looking into further. The heart-shaped symbol found on a coffin lid was thought initially to be the Sankofa Symbol, commonly used by the Akan people of West Africa’s Gold Coast. But Seeman argues that upon closer inspection, the symbol – as used on this coffin – is more likely an example of Anglo-American burial practices, and related in no way to the religious practices of the African occupant of the grave. Seeman believes that this is yet another example of African people in New York creating a hybrid culture that incorporated elements of traditional West African culture as well as the Euro-American culture that surrounded them. He asserts that the widespread belief that the symbol was an African one is due to the large amount of press and media attention that it received upon discovery. The sources are biased, he says, and should be read with a grain of salt.

On top of all of the sources he uses to make his main arguments, Seeman provides many good ones for further research. Here at Petersburg, there is a substantial amount of African American history, and many opportunities to use sources like Patricia Stamford’s The Archaeology of African-American Slavery and Material Culture, and Walter C. Rucker’s The River Flows on: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America. These sources could be useful when interpreting the USCT’s experiences here before, during, and after battle.


Sources:

Seeman, Erik R. “Reassessing the “Sankofa Symbol” in New York’s African Burial Ground.” The William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2010): 101.

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