Clay pipes used for smoking were so common in the 1700s and 1800s that it’s not very remarkable to find fragments of them at archaeological sites from the early days of the United States. But Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for Maryland’s Department of Transportation, took a second, closer look at a broken pipe stem from the floor of the slave quarters at Belvoir Plantation in Maryland.
DNA analysis suggests that the woman who used the pipe 150 to 200 years ago could trace her roots back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, nearly 5,000 miles away from the place where she lived and died in slavery.
Investigating broken ties
The kaolin clay used to make common pipe stems is porous stuff, and it tends to absorb fluids like saliva and blood. As an added bonus, DNA molecules bind well to the silica particles in the clay. In the lab, Schablitsky and her colleagues managed to recover DNA fragments from two pipe pieces.
One, found just outside the western edge of the building’s stone foundation, yielded just enough DNA to suggest that the long-dead smoker was a woman but not enough to compare with modern DNA databases to try to learn about her ancestry. But the other, found on the floor near a fireplace, yielded enough DNA sequences to suggest kinship with the Mende people of Sierra Leone.
Today, the Mende people are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, and their language is also widely spoken in neighboring Liberia. Traditional Mende art includes elaborate masks used in religious and social events, along with colorful woven fabrics that are popular across West Africa. Several members of the Mende community have become important political leaders in Sierra Leone, and geneticist Rick Kittles says that his genetic tests have suggested ancestral links between the Mende and several Americans, including Senator Cory Booker, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and poet Maya Angelou.
But the DNA can’t tell us whether the woman who smoked the pipe was born in West Africa and survived the horrors of the Middle Passage or whether she was born in the US to parents who traced their ancestry back to the Mende. Documents from the 1700s and 1800s suggest that people taken captive in Sierra Leone were brought to trading ports on the Chesapeake Bay. An estimated two million people died on that journey between 1500 and 1900, and the survivors endured weeks chained below decks in cramped conditions with little food and water.
The records that exist describe the enslaved people simply as cargo transported from one place to another. Once enslaved people stepped off the ships, the few documents that mention any piece of their lives make no mention of their origins. “When people stepped off slave ships, they were not identified by their ancestry. This is why this discovery is so important; it gives us that ancestral tie that is missing,” Schablitsky told Ars.
This find lines up well with the historical evidence that’s available, but it also helps re-forge a link that was otherwise broken at the docks. And that’s vital information for many modern descendants of enslaved people.
“Personal details once thought unknowable”
“Instead of using census records and published media, many must trace their heritage through their ancestor’s oppressor,” wrote Schablitsky and her colleagues. “If fortunate, the search leads to a manumission record, a will, or other government records with the names of their family’s disposition.”
Only two such documents identify people enslaved at Belvoir. The Burley family, enslaved by the Worthingtons who owned the plantation in the early 19th century, are identified in manumission papers; Cinderella Brogden, who ran away from the plantation in 1848, is identified in an advertisement offering a $100 reward for her recapture and return to slavery. Descendants of both families have been working alongside archaeologists at Belvoir since 2014. None of them appear to be related to the woman who once smoked the pipe, however.
But the study suggests that other clay pipe stems from other sites might hold similar clues about people otherwise lost to history, and that could have powerful implications for people hoping to learn more about their families and ancestors. “It is not only the data that is important to them, but the fact that this type of information survived to reveal personal details once thought unknowable,” wrote Schablitsky and her colleagues.
Extracting more DNA from clay pipe stems at other sites could help reconstruct geographical patterns in the slave trade. “This would take many years and thousands of pipe stems to get there, but it’s possible,” Schablitsky told Ars.
It could also help archaeologists better understand sites where poor, marginalized people lived and worked in the past. For the poorest segments of the early US population, it can be hard to tell whether homes and artifacts belong to people from one ethnic group or another, or even whether those people were free or enslaved, so ancient DNA analysis may make it easier to answer these questions. That’s especially important as archaeologists have begun to focus more on how ordinary people lived and what kinds of factors impacted their lives.
An invisible life
Schablitsky and her colleagues have suggested that the woman may have worked as a cook in the slave quarters, preparing meals for the other slaves at Belvoir Plantation. If so, she would have lived in this 10m × 10m (32ft × 32ft) building with floors of dirt and damaged brick. She would have spent long days in the kitchen that occupied the southern third of the building—a room dominated by a large fireplace and a storage pit dug out beneath the floor—and slept with as many as 32 other enslaved people in the building’s northern room.
Beyond that, the only thing we know about the invisible woman at Belvoir is that she had a habit of holding her pipe between clenched teeth, leaving grooves in the soft clay stem over time. We still don’t know her name, but she’s a little less anonymous now, and we might never have learned that much if archaeologists hadn’t stumbled across the stone foundation of the old slave quarters—they were actually looking for a camp used by French commander Rochambeau during the Revolutionary War.
“We went looking for France and found West Africa,” Schablitsky told Ars.
Schablitsky and her colleagues are in the process of collecting more pipe stems from a site in Cambridge, Maryland, for DNA analysis, and Schablitsky told Ars that museums, state agencies, and others have already contacted her team as well.