A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
There are many kinds of locks. Some keep things in; some keep things out. They can offer physical barriers and they can have emotional resonance—feelings are sometimes described as “locked up inside” and a partner as “holding the key to your heart.” For some enslaved people in the nineteenth century, a lock like this example discovered in the slave quarters of Kingsley Plantation in northeastern Florida had both spiritual and practical significance. “Within African American and especially enslaved contexts, locks recovered in domestic spaces become enormously important objects,” says archaeologist James Davidson of the University of Florida.
Davidson has cataloged at least 60 padlocks from 40 different slave cabin contexts in the South and found that in many ways they encapsulate the African enslaved people’s experience in America. Perhaps surprisingly, Davidson doesn’t believe that locks found in or near slave cabins were used mainly to lock enslaved people in, but rather to allow them to lock a cabin’s door, affording them a modicum of privacy. “Locks represent the potential for autonomy and the practice of small freedoms,” Davidson says. “In a slave society, a lock isn’t evidence of absolute freedom or true autonomy, but rather a mere shadow of a contested relationship between mutually hostile parties."
This lock was found in the yard outside a cabin, near the back door. It had been modified: Someone had scratched three X’s deep into the keyhole cover and hammered it shut to prevent it from being opened. Other objects were found buried nearby, including an intact iron hoe, a stone ax, and large whelk shells scattered around the yard. Another iron hoe was found inside the cabin, hidden in the bedroom floor. “Burying these utilitarian objects had the potential to transform them into something supernatural as a means to lock down evil,” Davidson says. Imbuing such everyday objects with spiritual significance may have echoed practices brought from Africa by the enslaved people who labored at Kingsley Plantation and their ancestors.
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Under lock and key