Challenging Landscapes

The Archaeology in Annapolis crew is back from another Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference, this year held in Leicester, England. Ben Skolnik and I co-authored a paper, combining our research interests and efforts. You can listen to Ben deliver the paper and see the visual aids from our presentation in the video below.


If you would prefer, the following is the written version:

Challenging Landscapes: Alternative Perspectives of Chesapeake Plantations

When Edward Lloyd, the first of his name, arrived in Talbot County, Maryland around 1660 as part of the original Virginian colonizers, he built the Wye House Plantation at its geographic center, with immediate access to the Wye River, the Chesapeake Bay, then the larger Atlantic world. He erected his house near the cove that cuts into the property, emphasizing his attention as a tobacco merchant to trade through waterway access. He migrated from Wales and established his family estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, complete with formal gardens that displayed his knowledge of plant cultivation and the trends of European-inspired designs. We know this through recorded history, and the plantation today is largely held up as an example of Georgian planning and a nostalgic remnant of Colonial times. Landscapes, however, are experienced in a multiplicity of ways. Until the mid-19th century, there were two main groups of individuals living on the plantation—free whites and enslaved blacks—who viewed and moved through the grounds in distinctly different ways. We’ll use the Wye House Plantation and another Chesapeake landscape, William Paca’s garden in Annapolis, as examples.

To go beyond the traditional historical interpretations of Euro-American formal plantation gardens and landscapes, we look to recognize the contributions of more than just the plantation elite in the shaping of gardening practices. Beyond a Eurocentric view of colonizing powers as the shapers of the landscape, this alternate perspective understands the multiplicity of ways in which landscapes may be experienced, analyzed, and encoded. This has become a dialogue between scholars, a conversation we want to join and expand. We have begun to apply these ideas to plantations in the American south, particularly the Chesapeake, and are considering its applications to landscape studies elsewhere.

One of the most influential works regarding these types of formal gardens is Mark Leone’s work on the William Paca garden in Annapolis, Maryland, originally published in 1984. Leone uses Marxist concepts of power, hierarchy, domination, and ideology to describe why Paca built his garden and how it functioned. Since then, a large body of literature has been written which approaches these landscapes through these same ideals of the Georgian Order, that is, the order of modernity and capitalism. This interpretation is rather intuitive. These gardens are conceived of and built by white, land-owning, males interested in either maintaining their own power and position in society by naturalizing and masking inequalities or in an attempt to acquire the power and position that they do not yet have. Implicit within this ideology are consequences for the arrangement of time and space. While this paradigm has given researchers a powerful way of seeing how these gardens functioned in 18th and 19th century America, it has not been without its critiques.

One critic of Leone’s early work in the Paca garden is Ian Hodder. His critique of the explanation Leone gives is that it is a top-down approach that dismisses the possibility of agency for those who are subjected to the message of the garden. He argues that Leone’s early use of the dominant ideology model is only a partial understanding of these spaces. He claims that there is an interplay—a negotiation—between dominant and various subversive ideologies that play out through the relationships between material culture. He encourages a skepticism that all visitors would have translated the language of William Paca’s garden in the same way as William Paca. His point is that it is possible to reject the dominant ideology to varying conscious and active degrees. In response, Leone’s current work through Archaeology in Annapolis has been informed by this critique and seeks to understand when and how groups in the past have seen through the dominant ideology as espoused by society’s elites.

Two years after Hodder first published his critique, Dell Upton published a chapter titled, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia.” In it, he makes it clear that there was not one 18th century landscape in colonial America, but two. Because racially-based slavery was a social reality with profound spatial implications, those of European descent and those of African descent had fundamentally different ways of viewing, inhabiting, and moving around the landscape. Upton concludes that the plantation landscape was designed to be met as “a powerful and intense ideological statement,” but that the African and African American enslaved were not a part of this intended audience. As such, landscape was not intended to function as ideology for the enslaved; in its absence, power and violence were the coercive forces that maintained slavery. Freed of this ideological function, Upton’s chapter adds an additional dimension to landscape studies, that is, the multivocality of landscape. Upton creates a framework with which we can apply Hodder’s critique to colonial gardens.

Part of what has been missing here is the role of the enslaved to shape the form of and meaning embedded within landscape. Garden historian Barbara Sarudy devotes an entire chapter in her book Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805 to the laborers that made these gardens possible. It is our contention that enslaved gardeners bring their expertise and ideologies onto the plantation landscape and enact them upon the gardens and elsewhere. It is well established that a significant portion of the labor required to build and maintain these gardens came from those of African descent, who brought with them their own expertise. As the slave ships brought plants and humans to the New World, the enslaved brought an understanding of the useful medicinal properties of those botanicals and the successful implementation of various gardening techniques. These plants, expertise, and ability to adapt to the flora of the new environment provided nourishment, medicine, and spiritual well-being. They were also a means of resistance and reversal of power relations.

These gardens were certainly a place on the landscape occupied by the enslaved, who, as both Hodder and Upton would remind us, would have also applied their own cultural logic to interpret and understand the space that comprised the garden. When freed from colonial interpretations of these spaces and with the combination of multiple perspectives, the garden becomes a space of “otherness.” Michel Foucault calls it a heterotopia, Homi Bhabha calls it the third space, and Henri Lefebvre calls it a representational space. They all describe a theoretical conception of a space in which there is an active process of identity formation and social ordering. Kevin Hetherington, in The Badlands of Modernity, maintains that these spaces also become a stage for the renegotiation of order—where alternate social orders manifest.

There is a large and growing literature that acknowledges the diasporic nature of African gardening practices and ordering due to the Atlantic slave trade, especially in the context of the United States. Since the 1980s, Africanist Merrick Posnansky has called for a more global approach to African-American archaeology, explaining that it is a detriment to the field to ignore the growing body of West African material culture literature when studying the roots of African-American practices. In the investigation of modern-day African-American gardening culture, researchers have begun to look to West Africa and other nations in the African diaspora for the cultural antecedents of particular yard art and garden designs. Drawing from Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the spirit: African and Afro-American art and philosophy, material culturalists find themes in these gardens such as motion, containment, and flash manifesting in the forms of found objects such as wheels and tires, bottles and boundaries, and mirrors and light bulbs. Within plantation spaces, some slaves were permitted to keep gardens, or did so anyway out of sight of the plantation house, and it is thought that through their gardening practices, aspects of African traditions developed into a uniquely African-American gardening tradition that has a continuation in some gardens today.

Drawing from this understanding of garden spaces, the spiritual practices of the African diaspora reveal patterns in the ways in which plants and metals are used for medicine and ritual, which suggests alternate interpretations for the material landscape. Particular plants, though chosen by the slave-owning elite for the qualities that make them exotic or aesthetically pleasing, may hold entirely different meanings for the enslaved laborers. Ase—the metaphysical control over the spiritual world—manifests itself through particular qualities in physical objects. The classification of plants and the natural world as used in medicine or spiritual practices is dependent on smell, color, texture, interaction with humans in terms of the effect humans have on the plants as well as the other way around.

Additionally, because the taxonomic structure of plants within Yoruba practices are based on physical attributes which make them divine, it has been suggested that the enslaved could have functionally substituted plants and herbs in their ritual, despite not necessarily being the same plants found in Africa. Robert Voeks, in a study of Yoruba magic and medicine in Colonial Brazil, found that many of the same plant families, and therefore plant morphologies, existed on both sides of the Atlantic. Voeks concluded that the physical elements necessary to continue such practices would not have been difficult to find within a new American landscape. The ordering of plants by the Linnaean system of classification, popular in the scientific gardening era of colonial America, is thereby joined by a different mode of categorization and ordering.

Although there were strict restrictions on place and movement through the landscape, the interaction—physically, mentally, spiritually—with nature and materials created a landscape of resistance for the slaves. Descriptions of this landscape are not found overtly in historical records, and it is the realm of archaeology that can illuminate this aspect of the plantations. In 2009, researchers identified evidence of possible West African spiritual practices in the greenhouse of the Wye House Plantation, where Frederick Douglass was enslaved as a child. There are two caches—groupings of spiritually charged objects that attempt to control the supernatural world—the first a bundle buried outside of the doorway to the slave quarter and, the second a pestle placed in the brick furnace of the hypocaust structure. The bundle included a colorless quartzite projectile point, a chert projectile point, and a coin. These objects were placed deliberately to direct spirits away from the entrance. It is particularly of importance that the doorway to the greenhouse slave quarter faces the Lloyd family cemetery, which places the bundle in between the living area and the home of the spirits of the dead. Frederick Douglass describes the intense aversion of the slaves to the burying ground and unease surrounding that area of the plantation, saying:

Superstition was rife among the slaves about this family burying ground. Strange sights had been seen there by some of the older slaves. Shrouded ghosts, riding on great black horses, had been seen to enter; balls of fire had been seen to fly there at midnight, and horrid sounds had been repeatedly heard.

While conducting oral history interviews on present-day African-American gardens, Grey Gundaker took note of found objects that serve to denote the entrances to yards. Separation of spaces between exterior and interior is important, and creates a transition between two worlds that necessitates protection.

In addition, the pestle in the furnace may have been placed in the keystone position by one of the enslaved workers who built and maintained the hypocaust, a system of flues that carried warm air from a stove through the walls and floor of the greenhouse. In one interpretation, the pestle could indicate an object calling on Ogun. Ogun, a West African diety associated with iron, fire, and heat, can be found in many African diasporic and syncretic contexts. He simultaneously embodies two notions of masculinity; the violent warrior who can harm or kill an opponent with weapons or magic and the benevolent father figure who can nurture, protect, and seek justice. These objects of protection and power demonstrate that, as the greenhouse—and the plantation landscape as a whole—symbolized a control over the natural, the hidden landscape within it held control over the spiritual. From this perspective, the greenhouse becomes not just a place for the ordering and control of plants, but also space for healing and protection by Ogun.

The iron farming implements used by the gardeners and field laborers also take on a different meaning. In certain West African religions, such as Yoruba, Ogun is associated with iron and the forge, and particularly the iron of weapons and farming or smelting tools. The combined importance of particular plants and iron for West African religions brings the structure into an entirely new light.
While the analysis of pollen remains taken from the Wye greenhouse and attached slave quarter is still in its preliminary stages, there is evidence to suggest that the landscape—either in the greenhouse or its surrounding lands—was home to flora with significant morphologies. For example, through his ethnographic research in Brazil, Voeks found that long blade or spear-like leaves are associated with the aggressive and warring gods, such as Ogun, also associated with the hunt and warfare. The remains of the plant Sagittaria—which was found in significant quantities in the greenhouse slave quarter in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts, though not in the greenhouse or modern samples—is known colloquially as arrowhead for the shape of its blade-like leaves.

Additionally, river pebbles are another type of physical object that embody ase—the metaphysical control over the spiritual world—and are associated with the river goddess Oya. In many West African cosmologies, bodies of water and their surfaces act as the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds. Formal gardens and plantations frequently bordered or were even surrounded by the rivers that make up the navigable waterways which made them viable economic units. The white pebbles which constitute the graveled walkways that would have surrounded the greenhouse and other outbuildings may have also been meaningful. As the enslaved negotiated the landscape, the combination of the white pebbles and buildings filled with iron—such as the greenhouse or even the blacksmith’s shop—would have represented a balancing of the spiritual world. Henry John Drewal explains that white materials have the capacity to cool the heat of red, containing and channeling the force of Ogun’s forge in a powerful way. Analyzing the landscape from this perspective, the buildings lose their Euro-American sense of order and hierarchy, and become something else. The blacksmith’s shop becomes a shrine to Ogun, the greenhouse a collection of powerful associations with strength and healing, surrounded by the balancing influence of the white river gravel.

Now, we return to the William Paca Garden in Annapolis. While this garden is a reconstruction, it has been investigated archaeologically and the recreation based on historical and archaeological evidence. We use it here as a proxy for all of the formal gardens found on plantation throughout the American south. The reconstructed garden, as was the original, is comprised of a series of falling terraces, walkways, and gardening beds. How can we interpret this garden not from a European perspective, couched in terms of power, hierarchy, and domination as has Leone, but from an African perspective? How would these gardens appear and function to those enslaved Africans as understood through an African worldview? Crosses or crossroads are symbolic of the intersection of the physical and spiritual worlds. These gardens almost always consist of multiple, intersecting paths. Water, and especially running water, is symbolic of the boundary between the living and the dead. Not only do the plants in these formal gardens require constant watering, but these 18th and 19th century plantations in the Chesapeake are almost exclusively found along or within sight of the rivers that feed into the bay. Not only does Paca’s garden have a significant water feature and drainage on its lower terrace, but prior to the construction of the Naval Academy and 20th century recreation and landscaping to conceal the presence of the Naval Academy, would have had a view out to the Severn River. The color white, in addition to its balancing powers, is associated with the spirits of the dead. Gardens paths were frequently paved with crushed oyster-shell and beds lined with whole shells for drainage. The iron tools necessary for the creation and propagation of these gardens and the plants within them are associated with Ogun, who is not only a deity of iron and red fire, but also a being of transition, including birth, death, and rebirth. Examined in this light, the Paca garden becomes a powerful space which mediates between life and death, the physical and the spiritual, and suggests the possibility of moving between them.

It seems apparent that one can reencode these spaces using an African cognitive framework and mental templates. The question then becomes: what role did enslaved Africans and their descendants play in the creation of these spaces? As gardeners, were they able to actively and clandestinely shape these gardens to embody a specific worldview or were they ordered to follow plans drawn up by the plantation owners? As for answers, Barbara Sarudy suggests enslaved gardeners, especially from the Caribbean, were valued for their knowledge of tropical plants. If non-western understandings of botany were brought into these spaces, then why wouldn’t the associated package of beliefs surrounding and incorporating those plants also come with them? Some have discussed African symbolism found archaeologically in the Americas. Cheryl LaRoche and Michael Blakey discuss the sankofa, an Akan symbol shaped like a heart but describes the relationship between the past, present, and future recovered from the African Burial Ground in New York City. Leland Ferguson has discussed Bakongo cosmograms found on the bottoms of Colono Ware bowls found in rivers and on quarters in South Carolina. Leone has found evidence of African spiritual practices in the form of bundles, caches, and cosmograms throughout the city of Annapolis. Africanist Robert Sutherland Rattray recorded fifty-two other Akan symbols in a 1927 ethnography, many of which are geometric and would not appear out of place cut into a parterre of English boxwood or as the blueprint for a garden room.

Rather than being a place of power, hierarchy, and dominance, for the enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived alongside and frequently worked in them, these formal gardens at the very least represent a stage upon which the symbolism of West African spiritual beliefs and practices can be played out. With additional work, we hope to be able to show that they were actively shaped by enslaved gardeners for such purposes. When viewed from this perspective, these alternate landscapes represent a subversion of the dominant narrative of landscape as power and hierarchy, and recast them in a fundamentally different light.


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