Featured Fragment – Political Puzzler

By Kerry S. González


Top Row: Token recovered by Dovetail during excavations at Greenfield Plantation. Bottom Row: token in mint condition showing intact ferrotype.

During the winter of 2015 and 2016 Dovetail conducted archaeological excavations on Greenfield Plantation in Botetourt County, Virginia. Over 3,000 artifacts were recovered as part of this study, many of which were personal in nature. For this month’s blog post we would like to highlight one of the more interesting pieces. Within a subfloor pit, located on the interior of a slave cabin, a political token was recovered from the pit fill. This particular token bears a date of 1860 with the faces and names of presidential candidate Stephen Douglas and his running mate, Hershel Johnson. These tokens were typically pierced and suspended from clothing or the body, not unlike political buttons worn today. The images on either side of the token are ferrotypes, a type of photograph developed on a thin piece of metal coated with a lacquer or enamel. While the ferrotype is masked by corrosion, a quick internet search revealed what is under the rust.

While finding an artifact that is a direct reflection of someone’s political standing is interesting, what is even more intriguing is finding political paraphernalia related to a candidate that was complicit in the expansion of slavery within an enslaved context. Was this artifact repurposed by the enslaved individuals or did the artifact originate from a part of the site not associated with the enslaved laborers? If so, how did the token end up amongst soil within the slave cabin? This raises questions about the meaning of artifacts and the association of artifacts with the people living in the building. Was it their belonging found within the soil? Why would an enslaved individual even possess a political token when they did not have the right to vote?

A token similar to the one recovered by Dovetail was found by Stantec in December 2015 (for the full story on the token found by Stantec follow the link below). This piece also dated from the 1860 election and was found in a domestic context. These finds are particularly significant during our nation’s current political climate. Both artifacts, along with the political cartoon shown below, are illustrations on how very little has changed in the political arena since the nineteenth century. While viewpoints and policies have altered, ‘Politicking’ is timeless.





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