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Why Scientists Think Ezekiel’s Wheel, Re-branded with a Traditional African Symbol, Helped Convert African-Americans to Christianity

Photo of the excavation site where the "emergent wheel" was found. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland.

Photo of the excavation site where the “emergent wheel” was found. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland.

A wheel-shaped artifact uncovered at the site of a plantation where abolitionist Frederick Douglass once lived provided scientists with evidence of how Christian religious symbols might have helped convert African-Americans to Christianity by giving new meaning to traditional African symbols.

Four years ago, University of Maryland archaeologist Mark P. Leone and his team of graduate researchers excavated what they interpreted to be a fusion between the Biblical image of Ezekial’s Wheel and the cosmogram, a circular West Central African spiritual symbol with an X on the inside. For them, the piece was representative of the blending of African and Christian religious beliefs during the early 19th century.

“No one has found this combination before. It may give us a snapshot of the blending of religious symbols of a tenant farmer after 1865,” Leone told Phys.org. “Christianity had not erased traditional African spirit practices, it had merged with them to form a potent blend that still thrives today.”

Leone went on to note that beginning in the 18th century, Methodist Episcopalian and later African Methodist Episcopalian evangelists were successful in preaching the ideals of the Christian faith to Black Americans along Maryland’s Eastern shore. Those Black Americans adopted the Christian way, yet retained the symbols of traditional African spirituality, which was apparent in what Leone dubbed the “emergent wheel.

“We call this the ’emergent wheel’ because it shows the growing power of Christian imagery alongside the African,” he explained. “It shows us a moment in time when these symbols literally lived side by side.”

According to Phys.org, Leone’s graduate students Benjamin A. Skolnik and Elizabeth Pruit discovered the wheel, completely intact, just below the surface where the former home of a tenant farmer on the Wye House Plantation once stood, dating back to 1865-1880. The excavated artifact contained a cosmogram-like figure molded into the lid of a canning jar, ringed by a series of circles and a wheel, which researchers believed to be the remnant of a small cart or barrow.

After four years of analysis, research and consulting with current residents of Maryland’s Eastern shore, Leone said he concluded that the “emergent wheel” was a modern-day representation of Ezekiel’s chariot wheel. An Eastern Shore resident who still lives and worships in the area said the symbol of Ezekiel’s Wheel, for Christians, is a reminder of God’s presence.

“[God] is omnipotent and is anywhere and everywhere at all times,” said Carlene Phoenix, a descendant of the enslaved Africans who worked the Wye House Plantation. “No matter what our ancestors endured during their captivity, God was there. For me, the wheel was a reminder to them about the presence of God and the reassurance that no matter what we endure that He will never leave us nor forsake us.”

The spiritual symbolism of Ezekiel’s Wheel was often represented in the works of 20th-century painter Ruth Starr Rose, who didn’t live far from the plantation, Phys.org reported. Leone said he credits art historian Barbara Paca, who has long studied Rose’s work, with helping him understand the meaning of the rusted wheel uncovered by his researchers. For him, the newly discovered “emergent wheel” symbolized the transition from traditional African religion to the African-American Christianity we see today.

 

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