A shout goes up from a swarm of students wearing tee shirts, jeans, and some of the damp clay in which they have been carefully digging, “Dr. P, Dr. P, come look!” The archaeological find may be a button, ring, coin, glass bead, shroud pin, the blade of a hoe, or human bones, but the findings are rich with meanings for Dr. Warren Perry, CCSU associate professor of anthropology.
Hours of preparation precede this moment of discovery. Perry insists scientific rigor must guide anthropological archaeology research projects, whether he is involving CCSU students in uncovering the celebrated African Burial Ground on the southern tip of Manhattan or in investigating the New Salem Plantation in Salem, Connecticut.
Even before the students “get their nails dirty, feet wet, or start itching with poison ivy,” as Perry puts it, his lectures introduce them to basic scientific concepts. Adopting a maxim from colleague Dr. Kenneth Feder, professor of anthropology — “Dig the documents before you dig the ground” — Perry escorted his students to the Connecticut Historical Society where they pored over archives, old maps, and aerial photographs.
Perry introduces them to “multivalency: Students must realize different cultures use or interpret objects in different ways, and as archaeologists we need to look for the context and spatial distribution in which artifacts are found.” For example, at the New York site, one coffin lid bore a heart-shaped design. To the European mind, the pattern could be a human heart and stand for caring. But Perry consulted art historian Ofori-Ansa from Howard University to detect another meaning. “The symbol, Sankofa, expresses the Akan social thought that espouses the essence of tying the past with the present in order to prepare for the future,” Ofori-Ansa told Perry. Perry says the Sankofa coffin is more evidence of Africans’ tenacious hold on their culture despite slavery.
Sankofa has become the logo for the New York African Burial Ground project, believed to be the oldest excavated African cemetery within an American urban setting. First uncovered in 1991 during construction of a new office building, the site where captive Africans, Native Americans, and poor whites were buried dates from at least 1712 to 1796. Perry is the associate director of archeology and principal archaeologist with the project, which is funded by a grant from Howard University.
Perry has offered CCSU students opportunities to study with him on this prestigious venture. “Archeological field work provides students with hands-on interactive experiences through the use of technical remote sensing equipment, and they work with other specialists, such as geologists and geneticists, thereby interacting with people both from the United States and Africa.”
Jerry Sawyer worked on the project as a computer specialist before he earned a B.A. magna cum laude from CCSU in 1997. He says Perry “imparts his love for his field to his students and inspires them to know more.” Sawyer joined Perry in the 18th-century New Salem plantation excavation, which was featured in Smithsonian (Nov. 2001). Perry asserts students’ predisposition for questioning led to the discovery of a hidden history of African enslavement at Salem. While generations of Americans believe slavery was limited to cotton plantations in the Deep South, Perry terms this a “myth.” Sawyer, who has used the 2.5-acre site as the basis for his doctoral thesis, has dug under marker stones deeply enough to find evidence of some African burial customs, such as caches of quartz crystals, Perry says. Feder observed, “Warren gets people excited about ancient history and forces them to react. Faced by new interpretations of the past, they don’t get angry at him, because Warren’s passion for his subject keeps them in rapt attention.”
Perry’s philosophy in classes dealing with the African diaspora, the peoples and cultures of Africa, and the archaeology of class formation and social inequality is to “encourage students to critically examine their own world and to understand historical contexts and the interconnectedness of global communities. This will enable them not only to survive but to help transform their world.” CCSU student Jean Cerasale, ’97, an archaeological technician now employed at the project, recalls, “Through the books and articles we read and through experts who spoke to our classes, African-American history took on new meanings. Dr. Perry opened our eyes.”
What’s the Next Story?
During Spring Break on an independent study, he and senior Janet Woodruff discovered a Bakongo, an African cosmogram or diagram of the universe, in the cellar of the Silas Deane House in Wethersfield. “He always takes students’ ideas seriously and goes out of his way for us,” said Woodruff. And Perry accompanied Honors Program student Joseph Samolis to the University of Massachusetts, Boston, to examine Colonoware, pottery once identified as Native American but now believed to be possibly produced by African Americans as well.
Sometime next year PBS’ NOVA will air a program dealing with an African skeleton named Fortune, housed at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. At the behest of the local NAACP chapter, Perry, CCSU Professor of Anthropology Michael Park, and Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni ’76 have been investigating the remains. “It’s a mystery story,” Perry smiles. “We took the bones apart and checked for disease and marks of trauma. We will be conducting genetic research and dental chemistry to investigate from where in Africa Fortune might have come,” explains Perry. “Was this man drowned or was he murdered?” His eyes sparkle, “This is another story. The truth is yet to be revealed.”
— Geri Radacsi