Tale of a Taler: A Pierced Coin from the Jacob Jackson Home Site

If artifacts could talk, we’d love to hear this one’s tale.  This pierced German coin from the 17th century was recovered during a systematic excavation at the Jacob Jackson Home Site, part of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (HATU).  Jacob Jackson was a free Black man who helped Tubman lead her brothers to freedom from the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1854.  No structures remain on the home site, but artifacts found there can provide clues to the site’s history.  So, what can we learn from this beautiful coin?  Let’s explore the mystery and meaning behind this remarkable artifact. 

WHERE DID IT COME FROM?  AND WHAT’S IT DOING AT HATU?

This silver taler was made in Dresden, Germany, in 1691.  Talers are silver coins that were issued by various German states from the 15th through the 19th centuries.  (Fun fact – what’s the English form of the word taler?  Dollar!)  This one was issued upon the death of this imposing-looking fellow, Saxony-Electorate Johann Georg III.  Johan Georg III was Elector of the German state of Saxony, and Marshall of the Holy Roman Empire, from 1680 until his death (likely from cholera or the plague) in 1691. 

Saxony-Electorate Johann Georg III.
Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Because the colonies did not produce much metal coinage, European coins were quite common in colonial America.  Spanish reals, for example, were legal tender in the United States until 1857, and turn up fairly frequently on American archeological sites.  Silver coinage in circulation in early America also came from France, the Netherlands, and, case in point here, the German states.  As Europeans made their way to America, so did their currency.

WHY IS THERE A HOLE IN THIS TALER?  COINS AND MAGIC

German coins on an American site are a cool find!  The hole in this one makes it even more interesting. The perforation along the edge of this coin suggests that it was modified to be worn as a pendant.  Maybe someone thought it was pretty and would make a good necklace?  That’s possible.  But it turns out that altering and wearing coins in this way was not unusual and was inspired by a lot more than fashion sense.  Documentary, folkloric, and archeological evidence indicate that silver coins have been pierced and worn as protective talismans and good luck charms for centuries.   

The use of coins as magic or ritual objects dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece, Rome, and Great Britain in the pre-Christian era.  They were used as votive offerings, placed in burials, and concealed in building foundations to ward off witches and evil spirits. You may not worry about witches interfering with your life, but chances are you’ve participated in some con magic yourself. Ever pick up a lucky penny off the sidewalk? (Heads up, lucky; tails up, not so much, right?) And who among us hasn’t made a wish and tossed a coin into a wishing well or fountain? 

This coin from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park is one of two coins discovered within the foundation of an 18th-century dwelling in Concord, Massachusetts. Sure, people drop coins all the time. But the location of these coins points to more than carelessness. We suspect white magic was at work!  

Early 18th-century coin from archeology collection at Minute Man NHP. NPS photo.

You may have heard of the bride’s tradition of having “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” on her wedding day.  The traditional rhyme continues, “…and a silver sixpence in her shoe,” for luck.  According to 18th-century English folklore, a silver coin in one’s shoe could protect against the evil eye.  This leather shoe sole is from the archeology collection at Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site.  The circular impression near the toe suggests that the wearer made use of this protective measure many years ago. 

Leather shoe sole from archeology collection at Saugus Iron Works NHS. NPS photo.

Various cultural festivities throughout the world include a cake with a coin baked inside of it for good luck.  The traditional English Christmas pudding and Greek New Year’s vasilopita both contain a secret ingredient: a coin!

Christmas pudding. Image courtesy of the Royal Mint.

In some parts of Africa, people have worn pierced coins as protective charms and items of personal adornment for centuries. (Singleton 1992) If you look closely at this Berber headdress from Morocco, you’ll see that it includes several coins as ornaments.

PIERCED COINS IN AMERICA

Now back to the pierced coin from HATU!  Pierced coins are exciting, but not uncommon, finds on American archeological sites.  We read about examples recovered at Historic Jamestowne, Harmony Hall in Georgia, Portici Plantation in Virginia, the Charles Carroll House in Maryland, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee, Charles Town in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Thomas Jefferson’s homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest in Virginia, to name a few!  The archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts contains two pierced coins: a Spanish real and a 1766 Danish silver skilling.

According to folklore studies, pierced coins were worn to ward off evil spirits, protect against disease, and bring good luck.  In some cases, it is difficult to assign these artifacts to specific cultural groups.  Michael T. Lucas notes in his article Empowered Objects: Material Expressions of Spiritual Beliefs in the Colonial Chesapeake Region that in the colonial settlement of Charles Town in Prince George’s County, Maryland, European colonists, Africans, and Native Americans lived and worked side by side in shared spaces.  Coin magic was a part of all three cultural traditions, so it is hard to interpret pierced coins found on the site as belonging to one distinct group.  By the 19th century, however, this had changed in some places.  Archeologists have recovered several pierced coins from contexts directly associated with enslaved African Americans, like these examples from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. (Images courtesy of Poplar Forest Archaeology Facebook page.)

SO, WHO WORE THE PIERCED COIN?

And now, for the million-dollar (pun intended!) question.  Who wore the pierced coin recovered at the Jacob Jackson Site? Alas, without any further evidence, it’s impossible to know who modified or wore the coin.  It could have been worn by a European colonist and deposited there before Jackson’s time.  It could have been lost by a colonist then found and worn many years later by an African American slave or a free Black person (like Jackson) living and working in the area.  We wish we knew how this coin ended up on the Jackson Home Site, but that remains a mystery.  What we do know about this coin is that the minute someone cut a hole in it, it became more than a coin.  The process of piercing this taler imbued it with new meaning and importance.  It could be strictly an object of adornment, selected and displayed because of its aesthetic qualities.  Research suggests, however, that there is probably more to the story.  It’s likely that this coin was worn as a protective charm, intended to keep evil at bay or bring good fortune.  Now, where’s my lucky penny? 

Pierced coin from archeology collection at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHP. NPS photo.

Artifacts contribute greatly to our understanding of history, but only when they are preserved in context. Please note that removing artifacts from National Park Service property without the proper permit is against the law. If you see an artifact on the ground, please leave it in place and tell a ranger. Thank you for helping to preserve our history!

References:

Cofield, Sara Rivers.  “Coin Magic.”  The Magic and Mystery of Maryland Archeology.  Maryland Archeology Month, 2019.

Cofield, Sara Rivers.  “Keeping a Crooked Sixpence: Coin Magic and Religion in the Colonial Chesapeake.”  Historical Archaeology 48(3):84-105. 

Cook, Barrie and Gareth Williams, eds.  Coinage and History in the North Sea World c. 500-1250.  Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006.

Cressey, Pamela J. “Pierced Coin Pendants Worn by Blacks in 1800s.”  Alexandria Gazette Packet, May 5, 1994.

Davidson, James M.  “Rituals Captured in Context and Time: Charm Use in North Dallas Freedman’s Town (1869-1907), Dallas, Texas”. Historical Archaeology 38(2):22-54.

Gary, Jack, Dr. Eric Proebsting, and Lori Lee.  Poplar Forest Department of Archaeology and Landscapes.  “Culture of the Earth: The Archaeology of the Ornamental Plant Nursery and an Antebellum Slave Cabin at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.” 

Glass, Alex.  “Pierced Silver Coin.”  Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.  Curator’s Choice, July 2010.

Hanna, Jennifer.  “Journeying toward Freedom and New Beginnings.”  Article on www.nps.gov/hatu/index.htm

Hume, Ivor Noël.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Lee, Lori.  “Beads, Coins, and Charms at a Poplar Forest Slave Cabin 1833-1858.”  Northeast Historical Archaeology Volume 40 Article 6. 

Leone, Mark.  The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital: Excavations in Annapolis.  University of California Press, 2005. 

Lucas, Michael T. “Empowered Objects: Material Expressions of Spiritual Beliefs in the Colonial Chesapeake Region.”  Historical Archaeology 48(3):106-124.

Merrifield, Ralph.  The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic.  New Amsterdam Books, 1988.

Michael, Thomas and Tracy Schmidt, eds.  Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700.  Krause Publications, 2018.

Orser, Charles E. Jr.  “The Archaeology of African American Slave Religion in the Antebellum South.” In Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture.  Walter H. Conser, Jr. and Rodger M. Payne, eds. University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Singleton, Theresa A., ed. African American Archaeology.  No. 6, 1992.

Smith, Julian.  “Unearthing Magic of Slaves and Immigrants.”  Summary from American Archaeology Vol. 19 No. 2, Summer 2015.  Accessed via The Archaeological Conservancy Website. 

About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tale of a Taler: A Pierced Coin from the Jacob Jackson Home Site

  1. Pingback: Weekly World Numismatic News for September 26, 2021 | Coin Collectors Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s