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Brain Food: Artifacts Offer Insight Into Lives Of Slaves

Sharon Moses

Beneath piles of bricks that were once chimneys for slave quarters, anthropologist and archaeologist Sharon Moses is unearthing what she believes are spiritual artifacts on South Carolina's Cat Island. Nails, shells, buttons and pottery bundled together, she says, were likely part of Hoodoo magic intended to protect the inhabitants.

"They were using these ritual deposits to try to protect themselves from their masters and overseers," Moses says. "They were also using deposits for healing and curing of personal ailments."

Moses teaches at Northern Arizona University. Her island research site is a wildlife preserve that was a rice plantation in the late 1700's. She says objects found under cabins tell - not only of the inequality between slaves and masters - but also of a social hierarchy among the slaves themselves.

Moses says, "You can tell the difference as you excavate that, for instance, the slaves on the upper end of the street who probably had more interaction with the main fact, one of the cabins I've already identified as belonging to one of the overseers in terms of the stables. He was the driver, the person that would have been taking the master in the wagon to the ferry to cross over into town. So, he had more responsibility and as a result, he got more hand-me-downs, and you can see it in and around the cabin there."

Credit Sharon Moses
Pipes found under slave cabins on South Carolina's Cat Island

This summer, Moses is bringing NAU students to the site to excavate and catalogue artifacts. She hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of the complexity of slave life on Cat Island. "It quickens my heart," Moses says, "to look in the soil and bring things up and be able to piece together people's lives and how they lived and what they believed and how they made it through dark times, as well as good times, and how that human tenacity for survival kicks in."

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