One of North America's most famous Revolutionary-era buildings -- a lone-surviving testament to an Enlightenment ideal -- has a hidden West African face, University of Maryland archaeologists have discovered.
Their excavation at the 1785 Wye "Orangery" on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- the only 18th century greenhouse left in North America -- reveals that African American slaves played a sophisticated, technical role in its construction and operation. They left behind tangible cultural evidence of their involvement and spiritual traditions.
Frederick Douglass, who lived there as a young man, made it famous through his autobiography. But the team concludes that he failed to appreciate the slaves' full contribution.
"For years, this famous Enlightenment structure has been recognized for its European qualities, but it has a hidden African face that we've unearthed," says University of Maryland archaeologist Mark Leone, who led the excavation. "Concealed among the bricks of the furnace that controlled the greenhouse temperature, we found embedded a symbol used in West African spirit practice. An African American slave built the furnace, and left an historic signature."
His team also found African charms buried at the entrance to a part of the Wye greenhouse that once served as living quarters for the slaves who maintained the building.
"Ironically, these African symbols distinguish this building from its more elaborate European counterparts, and give it a unique American character," Leone adds, who has uncovered other evidence of African spirit practice through his Archaeology in Annapolis project.
African American Contributions
The slaves were pioneers in early U.S. agricultural experimentation, the new research concludes. They did far more than manual labor, performing work that today might be conducted by skilled lab technicians, though under far different conditions.
"These greenhouses were for agricultural and horticultural experimentation in 18th century America, and African American slaves played a far more significant and technical role in their operation than they've been given credit for," Leone says. "This work required sophistication and skill, and the slaves provided it." For example, slaves began experimenting there with wild broccoli and other greens, Seneca snakeroot as a cure-all, ginger root for tea, buckbean as an analgesic and antiemetic, and hardy bananas.
Leone says that Enlightenment ideals of beauty, natural order and scientific understanding made greenhouses important to colonial-era estates in America and across Europe. His excavation at the Wye greenhouse revealed the European tastes of its owners.
Rare Pollen Analysis
Based on an analysis of centuries-old pollen recovered from the site -- a rarely used procedure in historical archaeology -- plus written historical records, Leone says the greenhouse started with a range of flowering plants, shrubs, and medicinal herbs. By the 1820s, more exotic plants were cultivated, including lemon and orange trees, and possibly tubs of pond lilies. This corresponds to Frederick Douglass' descriptions in his autobiography.
The Wye "Orangery" stood on the thriving Lloyd Plantation, a large operation with several hundred slaves. The property, first settled by Edward Lloyd I in the 1650s, is still owned by his descendants. The family has encouraged the excavation for the historical and scientific knowledge it can provide.
The building's fame stems, in large part, from the garden's description by Frederick Douglass. In his "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave" (1845), Douglass wrote: "Colonel Lloyd kept a large and finely cultivated garden, which afforded almost constant employment for four men, besides the chief gardener," he recalled two decades after leaving the plantation. "This garden was probably the greatest attraction of the place. During the summer months, people came from far and near -- from Baltimore, Easton, and Annapolis -- to see it. It abounded in fruits of almost every description, from the hardy apple of the north to the delicate orange of the south."
Writing in 1855 ("My Bondage and My Freedom"), Douglass identified the greenhouse chief as Mr. McDermott, the "scientific gardener imported from Scotland," and again, noting his team.
Pollen analysis confirms the broad sweep of plant life grown in the greenhouse, as Douglass describes it. In turn, his writings provide historical markers in the evolution of the greenhouse. But the total archaeological record suggests Douglass did not recognize the skilled work the greenhouse slaves performed, Leone concludes.
Systematic experiments were conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries to determine optimum light, temperature and water requirements of exotic plants, and slaves took an active role in this work. "These buildings were not only for beauty or display," Leone says, drawing on historic records and modern scholarship. "Plantation owners like the Lloyds also were conducting agricultural experiments out of economic necessity and by the temperament of the times. They wanted to have access to exotic plants, and they wanted to learn how to make them thrive. They approached this in a systematic way, and it's no stretch to consider this scientific experimentation."
Furnace operators -- the slaves -- would have had to monitor conditions and maintain temperatures within the recommended range of 42 to 54 degrees F, Leone adds. Working under a Scots gardener, they would have to read the thermometer, understand each plant's requirements, control the windows and monitor the furnace. The knowledge and skill acquired from these experiments became one of the slaves' possessions, and helped createan African American tradition of gardening.
Harrison Roberts, born a slave at Wye House, continued the gardening tradition there and died in the 20th century. He mastered the skills while a slave and continued to use them after freedom. "The knowledge didn't just go away -- it endured longer than the plantation system," Leone concludes, based on an oral history from the 1960s.
To analyze the traces of old pollen found buried in the greenhouse soil, Leone consulted with a palynologist. It's the first time the technique has been used on an historic U.S. greenhouse, Leone says. Research scientist Heather Trigg at the University of Massachusetts, Boston's Fiske Center for Archaeological Research was able to identify families of plants grown in the greenhouse. "The technique often does not permit the identification of specific species," Trigg explains. "Pollen from the rose family was identified in the soil of the greenhouse, for example, meaning that rose, strawberries, or some wild plants, such as cinquefoil, were grown there."
The Orangery remains active today, maintained by descendants of Edward Lloyd IV, who first started construction on it even before the Revolutionary War. The excavation was launched at the request of the family, and preceded structural work to maintain the building.
"I'm committed to preserving the history of this building and the entire estate," says Mrs. R.C. Tilghman, an 11th generation descendant of Lloyd. "This land has always been a part of my life, and its preservation comes as a duty."
The Tilghmans permitted Leone to conduct an earlier series of excavations on the property, which uncovered slave quarters and other buildings.
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