Excavation of buried settlement continues

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Timbuctoo may be buried underground, but some in Westhampton, N.J. call it home. “They write ‘Westhampton’ [on postage], but if you ask them, they’ll tell you they live in Timbuctoo,” said Christopher Barton, an anthropology graduate student, who leads an excavation of the buried African American village. 

Timbuctoo is located near a Civil War Memorial Cemetery [Credit: Paul Klein/Temple News]

Barton leads a team of approximately 15 Temple students and volunteers working to excavate the “lost” village, which sits 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. 

The village, founded some time around the mid-1820s, originally stood in a secluded field, just off of Rancocas Road, and was a haven for freed runaway slaves. 

Barton said that it’s a common misconception that because Philadelphia had Quakers, it was a safe area for blacks, when in reality Philadelphia was a popular headquarter for bounty hunters. 

“Frederick Douglas calls it a vile city [in his writings],” Barton noted. 

At its peak in the 1880s, Timbuctoo had anywhere between 25 and 150 residents of multi-ethnic backgrounds. During the Great Depression, job scarcity drew residents away from the village, and Timbuctoo began to lose its autonomy. The last original residents moved away in the 1950s. 

Most residents were farmhands or worked in Quaker-owned brickyards. The need for farmland may have contributed to the rapid destruction of the town. 

Over one foot of earth covered the remains of the town, making it too deep for the natural biodegradable process to uncover in 50 or 60 years. 

Before excavation began, Westhampton sponsored a geophysical survey. The results allowed Barton’s team to identify building materials deep underground, as well as human remains in unmarked graves. 

Timbuctoo also houses 13 marked graves of black Civil War soldiers. 

A vast majority of the artifacts found were for construction purposes, especially brick. Glass found in various forms, including whole bottles, may indicate the residents of Timbuctoo recycled their garbage, Barton said. 

Remnants of glass compote, made to look like an expensive and decorative cut glass, paint a picture of a society attempting to distinguish an identity through consumerism. 

Children’s toys revealed a connection that Timbuctoo shared with popular culture of the early 20th century. 

In addition, Temple students found more than 20 jars of Dixie Peach and Royal Crown brand hair pomade, a product that remains popular in African American consumerism today. 

Artifacts brought back to the university will be cleaned and returned to Westhampton Township. 

The team has uncovered only about 10 percent of the four-acre site so far. 

Still, he stressed the respect team members must maintain for the site as a place of historical significance. 

“Archaeology is a very invasive way to figure out the past,” Barton said. 

Source: The Temple News [August 30, 2011]

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