Creating New Traditions
Maintaining Cultural Identity through New Burial Rituals

Burial #242

Burial 242 was of a woman between the ages of 40 and 50 years old. The excavation uncovered a copper-alloy ring on the woman's middle finger of her right hand, copper-alloy straight pins on her sternum and lumbar bones, and two coins, one in her right eye and the other on the coffin floor, just beneath the left eye. The coins were identified as George II and III halfpennies. These coins were also the most likely to be circulating among captive Africans during this time.

Placement of these coins is not unique to this site. All burial sites associated with coins were of older adults of the Late Group, suggesting that this custom may have been adopted toward the latter part of the 18th century and reserved for individuals at the farther end of the life cycle.

Figure 1 (left) In situ photograph of Burial 242, showing a copper coin in the left eye socket (Catalog #1229-B.002) and immediately beneath right eye socket (Catalog #1229-B.001). Scale is in inches. Photograph by Dennis Seckler

The placement of coins on the dead is also not unique to these burial grounds. In Europe and its North American colonies, coins served as fare for the dead to get across the Jordan River; a practice that may have been adapted from the Greek tradition documented in Virgil's Aeneid. In England and other European countries, coins were placed on the eyes of the deceased to keep the eyelids closed since it was believed that if the eyes were not shut, the dead would look for and take someone to accompany them to the grave.
Figure 2 (above) Coin, copper, from right eye. Burial 242, Catalog #1229-B.001. Diameter 27 mm. Photograph by Jon Abbott.
This practice is also found in other African American burial grounds. An example is Montserrat where there was at least one burial that uncovered a single “metal disc [that] may have acted as a token or fee for the return of the deceased's spirit to Africa” (Watters 1994:64). In the New York African Burial Ground, it seems that the placement of coins on the eyes had two purposes. One was to keep the eyes closed while the other was for more spiritual reasons. This practice allowed the African Slaves in New York to continue with cultural traditions, even if these traditions were new.

Burial #340

Artifacts analysis:

A woman's remains of about 25-30 years old with altered teeth, a practice of the West African population. There are a total of 111 beads (largest amount found in the excavation) made of cowrie shells, glass, and one bead of amber. Some were worn around the waist .

About Beads in African culture:

Powerful symbols denoting important passages of life such as marriages. birth and death. They were believed to keep wearer from harm and at some point use as "money". As for the their final resting place, they are for the dead as they made their journeys to the afterlife.

Inferences from the woman in Burial #340:

She was probably important with all the precious beads laid at rest with her. In life, she might have been a respectable figure who could cure people of sickness or even a princess of a tribe who was kidnapped and sold as a slave. Her people knew of her identity and they treated her with respect even when they were far away from their homeland.

Inferences about her life as a slave:

She was born in Africa and probably taken from Barbados circa 1715-1764. She could have been on "The Eagle", a ship that smuggled 40 slaves from Guinea, West African into Long Island or New York ships from Africa She could have transported by "The Catherine" which brought slaves from Africa to NY and NJ in 1730's. One thing is for certain, she brought her culture and continues to keep them even hidden from the eyes of these foreigners

Burial #332

Burial 332 held the remains of a man whose age was calculated through skeletal analysis to be around the ages of 35-50. The most striking feature of his burial is the presence of decorative iron nails on the lid of the coffin, arranged to form two letters and a number, determined to be "HW" and "38". The coffin lid was split in two lengthwise from the stress of the burial, disturbing the lettering; this can be seen in figure 1.

The letters and numbers taken together most likely are an inscription of the individuals initials and age. 38, the age indicated, agrees with the calculated age range. Currently, the are no records of a man with the initials H.W. who is likely to have been buried in the Burial Ground, but such records are still incomplete.

The presence of such an inscription is unique to the Burial Ground. The custom of inscribing coffins with initials and age at death is evident during the 18th and 19th centuries, and suggest that the coffin was meant to be displayed, either at the home of the deceased, during the funeral procession, or at the grave site before interment.