Pierced coin pendants worn by blacks in 1800s

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

Page updated on Nov 14, 2017 at 10:42 AM
Alexandria Gazette Packet Logo

Pierced coin pendants worn by blacks in 1800s

May 5, 1994 By Pamela J. Cressey

GAZ9415 image
Archaeological excavations in Alexandria unearthed this pierced silver dime monogrammed with "MM" and border carved on obverse. Pierced coins are found on African American sites before and after the Civil War.
Archaeologists always ask questions about the past before we excavate a site. Digging is not conducted randomly without concern for the ultimate purpose of the information. The research question must come before excavation in order to make the actual dismantling of the site acceptable. Archaeology is a bit unusual among the social sciences. The site, which is our resource and data base, is actually destroyed in the very act of collecting data through excavation. That is, we take apart a site in order to understand it.

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.