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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