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Maryland archaeologists find West African spirit cache at Harriet Tubman's birthplace

Maryland archaeologists find West African spirit cache at Harriet Tubman's birthplace
Maryland archaeologists find West African spirit cache at Harriet Tubman's birthplace 00:49

BALTIMORE -- Maryland archaeologists uncovered African religious artifacts on the Eastern Shore land where abolitionist Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1822, officials announced Tuesday. 

Gov. Wes Moore joined archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Dorchester County on Tuesday morning for the announcement. 

The artifacts were found in the ruins of an enslaved overseer's house, possibly Jerry Manokey, not far from the home of Ben Ross, Tubman's father. Both buildings were on the land of slave owner Anthony Thompson. 

The archaeologists were able to identify the religious West African cache by items like glass to reflect spirits, a round button, red and blue items, and metal nails. 

"Harriet Tubman's birthplace is sacred ground, and this discovery is part of our ongoing commitment to preserve the legacy of those who lived here," Governor Moore said. "The find reveals untold stories of the past that help us both understand the history we share and inspire us to make a better future."

Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief Archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation, and her team have been searching for the homes of those enslaved on the Thompson Farm for more than two years. 

At one time, more than 40 enslaved people lived there. 

The home discovery is on private property, while the archaeological remains of Mr. Ross's home are located on the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. 

Beneath layers of soil, archaeologists uncovered a substantial brick building foundation of the home. 

The excavation also revealed hundreds of artifacts, including the West African spirit cache. 

The cache, found during excavations last year, included a glass heart-shaped perfume bottle stopper, a white ceramic dish, and a copper alloy button. 

Enslaved people are believed to have placed the cache in front of the home's fireplace to protect the occupants from negative spirits.

"This fascinating discovery adds another chapter to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman, a Marylander who led a life in pursuit of freedom for herself and others," said Maryland Department of Transportation Acting Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld. "I'm proud of the dedicated work of our archaeologists; their efforts reflect our commitment to preserve and protect the heritage of Maryland's communities."

Moore, who called Tubman "one of the state's true matriarchs," called the discovery a "truly incredible find." 

The findings will soon be on display at the visitor center. 

Maryland Department of Transportation archaeologists will continue their research on the Eastern Shore this spring and summer and plan to revisit both Mr. Ross's homesite and the overseer's quarters.

"Archaeologists are able to discover artifacts, each one representing a piece of a puzzle," said Tina Wyatt, Harriet Tubman's great-great-great-grandniece and Ben Ross's great-great-great-great-granddaughter. "When gathered together, studied, and analyzed, we are then able to provide an important tangible experience, allowing a real-life connection between ancestors and descendants." 

Tubman was born into slavery in 1822 as Araminta Ross in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, according to the Maryland State House. 

She married John Tubman, a free Black man, and escaped to freedom in 1849. 

Tubman then became the most famous "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, a network of routes and safe houses that enslaved people used to escape into free states. She returned to Maryland multiple times to free family members and others, according to the state house. 

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