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.
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!
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.
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!
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?
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!
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