By IHE Fellow Laura E. Masur
Archaeological research is a fascinating but painstaking process. After excavating and documenting an object, the archaeologist asks, what is it? Why did it end up in the ground? What did it mean to the people who used it? Sometimes the answer is simple. But often, the artifacts tell us intimate stories about belief and belonging in the past.
John Lewger was the first head of household at St. John’s freehold, located outside of Maryland’s first capital at St. Mary’s City. He had a complicated relationship with religion, baptized in the Church of England and ordained an Anglican priest in 1625. After deep reflection, he converted in 1635 to Roman Catholicism and was employed by Cecil Calvert as the Secretary of Maryland by 1637. The following year, Lewger, his wife Anne, their son John, and seven servants settled into their large house at St. John’s. Before the house was finished and the floor laid, someone placed a glass palm rosary in a construction ditch, inside the structure’s stone wall.
The placement of this rosary followed an ancient British tradition used to ward off evil and protect inhabitants of a structure by setting objects near its foundation. The St. John’s rosary, and other archaeological examples from medieval England and Scotland, held power because of their association with saints, a priest’s blessing, or substances like jet or amber. A contemporary Jesuit account illustrates this power: in 1640, a colonist desecrated “Ave Maria Beads” and was subsequently killed by a shark. In the new and hostile world of colonial Maryland, protection was particularly important to those living at St. John’s.
English colonists at St. Mary’s City and Jamestown were not the only residents of colonial America to use rosary beads. Rosaries and rosary beads from eighteenth-century American Indian burials in Pennsylvania show evidence of intentional modification. One Susquehannock burial at eighteenth-century Conestoga Town contained a fragmentary rosary of forty-two faceted blue glass beads connected by metal loops, but with the crucifix replaced by a coin or commemorative medal depicting King George II and Queen Caroline of Great Britain.
A necklace of the same faceted blue glass beads, strung with a copper alloy crucifix and plain copper-alloy finger rings, was excavated from a Piscataway burial at nearby Conoy Town. Similar necklaces were excavated from numerous other interments at Conoy Town. The modified rosary and rosary-like necklaces underscore how Susquehannocks and Piscataways in Pennsylvania adapted this European Christian form to fit their own belief systems and cultural needs.
A century later, rosaries were important devotional tools for Maryland’s Black Catholic community. Between 1870 and the early twentieth century, an African American woman named Elizabeth Hawkins lived at Northampton Plantation Slave Quarters with her husband Robert. Lizzie and Robert’s daughter Rosa was baptized at nearby Holy Family Catholic Church, established by the Jesuits as a mission to African American tenant farmers. A fragment of a bone rosary and an associated Stanhope cross were excavated from Northampton, a testament to the faith of Lizzie, Robert, Rosa, and the site’s other inhabitants.
United through their use of rosary beads, the Lewgar family, the Hawkins family, and unnamed Susquehannocks buried at Conestoga Town are all important figures in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Not all people are equally documented in the historical record. But all people — Black and white, wealthy and poor — create and use material objects. The importance of divine presence in Catholic belief and practice makes Catholicism uniquely present in the archaeological record of American Catholicism.
Laura E. Masur is a professor of anthropology at The Catholic University of America.