City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 7, 2010 11:36 AM
Pierced coin pendants worn by blacks in 1800s
May 5, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
One of the major questions which has guided African American archaeological studies for the last 15 years in the United States is one asked by many people. Can the African elements of American blacks be observed in the archaeological record? Studies often focus on the Africanism of intangibles, like music, religion and language. What about the tangible elements of life that may remain in the ground?
In an urban area like 19th century Alexandria, it is difficult to distinguish pottery and glass as specifically African American. But in plantation and rural sites, African American pottery, pipes, burial practices and even healing items have been discovered. We do, however, have some evidence of a shared African American artifact which transcends rural or urban boundaries.
The City archaeologists have discovered two pierced coins on African American sites in Alexandria. Such coins were pierced with holes to hang as pendants. One coin in Alexandria is a 18th century Spanish real. The other is a silver dime carved with the initials "MM." Made from a Liberty Seated or Barber dime, the die for the obverse of the coin was used between 1860 and 1916. This type of coin is often referred to as a love token in coin collecting books. But it may represent a continuation into the post Civil War era of an African American custom.
Pierced coins, often Spanish, are found in other archaeological sites associated with American slaves. Archaeologists discovered pierced coins in plantations such as Harmony Hall in Georgia, Portici and Monticello in Virginia. It has been noted by Theresa Singleton and others that pierced coins are common items of adornment in parts of Africa.
The Cedar Grove cemetery site in Arkansas also yielded a pierced coin-an 1854 seated liberty half dollar was on the vertebrae area of a female burial. The coin may have been used as a pendant or sewn to cloth as other coins were found. Newbell Puckett wrote in 1926 that "The silver coin, so effective in warding off conjuration, is equally effective in bringing good luck when tied around the leg or worn in a necklace about the neck."
We may never know who wore these pierced coins over by the Wilkes Street Tunnel area, nor what they fully meant to historic Alexandrians. But we can look at the coins today and realize that their preservation today helps us appreciate the past.
Visit the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Studio 327, to see the pierced coins. Call 703-838-4399 for information.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.