Odd seashell found at historic Boston site belonged to enslaved person, experts say

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City of Boston Archaeology Program photo

Finding a Pacific Ocean seashell at an 18th century Boston historic site sounds mysterious, but thrilled historians believe they just found the personal property of an enslaved person.

Called a money cowrie, the shell was uncovered Sept. 13 in a trench on the property of William Shirley (1694-1771), a Royal Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Money cowries are “native to the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean and traditionally associated with African cultures,” according to the City of Boston Archaeology Program.

“Though they are not exclusively found associated with enslaved people ... here in Boston, we have only found cowrie shells on sites with documented enslaved people, and they served numerous traditional uses in many African cultures,” program officials wrote on Facebook.

“This cowrie may be the first artifact directly associated with enslaved people on the property.”

Money cowries were “highly valued by many African cultures” and had multiple uses, according to the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta.

“They are made into jewelry and hair ornaments, sewn onto prestigious garments, used in religious rituals and as protective amulets, and up until the late 19th century they were even used as money,” the university reports.

“Small, lightweight, easy to handle and difficult to counterfeit, these durable shells had all the qualities necessary for use as currency. They were so widely used that the name Monetaria moneta or ‘money cowrie’ was given to the sea snail.”

At least five enslaved people worked on the property, historians say. The excavation project is focused around an outbuilding where they likely lived.

The cowrie shell, which is missing its back, was found about 15 inches down, officials said.

“Both Governor William Shirley and his son-in-law Eliakim Hutchinson exploited the labor of enslaved people at the Shirley-Eustis House,” program officials said.

“The outbuilding was built around the same time as the main house, between 1747-1749. It probably functioned as a stable, though many historic stables also had living quarters and oral histories note that it may also have served as housing for the enslaved people at the property.”

A home currently atop the stable site incorporates “only half of the original structure, though we are not sure where the other half is,” officials said.

Among the details being explored is whether the outbuilding was moved from its original location in the 1860s. The estate’s main house is also believed to have been moved, officials said.

“If we’re right ... we now have an opportunity to potentially excavate the original house kitchens as well as other work and living spaces associated with the enslaved individuals living there,” officials said.

The Shirley-Eustis House was built between 1747 and 1751 and is on the U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Data about the slaves who lived on the property is scare, historians say, but “the earliest written mention is the 1746 baptismal record of an infant named Jane.”

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