The Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project unearths the history of a prominent 1800s African Muslim

Yarrow Mamout was an African Muslim born in Guinea, West Africa in 1736, where he was thought to have been a member of the nomadic Fulani tribe. He was sold into slavery at the age of 16 and was brought to Maryland. After 44 years of being a “good and faithful servant,” he was rewarded with his freedom.

Mamout was able to read and write in Arabic, and was known to have an “extensive understanding” of real estate, finance, and law. He exhibited his business acumen when he purchased shares at the Bank of Georgetown and was able to live comfortably off of the interest for the rest of his long, long life.

Mamout purchased property in Georgetown at 3324 Dent Place in 1800, just four years after receiving his freedom. It was rumored that he was also buried on this property after he died in 1823, at 87 years old.

In 2012, the City Archaeologist in Washington D.C., Dr. Ruth Trocolli, was informed by researcher James Johnston that the privately-owned property, and potential burial site of Yarrow Mamout, was at risk of being disturbed. The District wanted to demolish the neglected 1850s house that stood on the property that had been partially destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, and potential developers wanted to split the parcel of land into two lots.

Archaeologists are not able to conduct research on private property, so they worked with the owner of the property to get permission to work on it in advance of any development work. Permission was granted to the Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project in June 2015.

In 2015, University of Florida Department of Anthropology Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Mia L. Carey, M.A., led this archaeological dig in the heart of Washington, D.C., searching for evidence of Mamout’s life and remains. This dig was significant for a number of reasons.

“There has never been an archaeological site excavated where the Muslim identity of the individual was confirmed in the home or property,” Carey explains. “No other site like this exists in America.”

African Muslims were unique in the enslaved population in America because they were literate, well-spoken, and well-traveled – “cosmopolitan in a sense,” as Carey describes. Roughly fifteen to forty percent of the American slave population was Muslim; however, many lost their Islam identities as a result of being in a hostile Christian environment.

Mamout was able to maintain his devotion to Islam until his death in 1823, and was also an important figure during his time. He sat for two formal portraits – an exceedingly rare thing for an African to have done in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was painted in 1819 by Charles Wilson Peale, who also painted portraits of American Revolutionary icons like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington (whom Mamout is said to have met). That portrait now hangs in the Atwater Museum in Philadelphia.

The second portrait, painted in 1822 by James Alexander Simpson, is displayed in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library, where it caught the attention of D.C.-based lawyer, writer, and lecturer James H. Johnston, who wondered who this mystery African man was to have sat for a formal portrait that would then hang in such an institution.

Johnston went on to write the book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family, documenting six generations of the African American family that began with Mamout. After seven years of research and writing, the book was published, igniting local interest in Mamout’s story as an important piece of local history. The popularity of Mamout’s story led to Carey and her team having the opportunity to excavate the property that was once his home.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the popular presumption of archaeology as a practice involves a lot of digging in dirt in the middle of deserts, unearthing lost pyramids and dinosaur bones with the occasional Indiana Jones-esque adventure. This view isn’t entirely wrong – lost pyramids and dinosaur bones have certainly been found – but it’s certainly not entirely right.

Archaeology does involve a lot of digging, out of necessity, but it also involves a lot of storytelling. The archaeologist not only unearths her artifacts to share with the world, but must also contextualize these artifacts in relation to their geography, history, and the cultural milieu of their respective time and place.

Carey enjoys telling Mamout’s story, and the story of his fellow African Muslims who were brought to America against their will and who had a profound impact on the cultural and intellectual legacy of this country, an impact almost unknown today for being largely invisible and unacknowledged.

“Islam is one of the most diverse racial and ethnic groups in the world,” says Carey. “The worldwide Muslim population will be close to 2.8 billion by 2050,” comprising 30 percent of the world’s population. “When most people think of Muslims they think of Middle Eastern Muslims” – and worse, the xenophobic perception of Muslims as violent fundamentalist terrorists – “but the world Muslim population is two-thirds African, one-third Southeast Asian, and one-quarter Arab, with a growing number of Latin Muslims.”

This research, she says, opened her own eyes to how diverse the Muslim population really is. Even more so, it opened her eyes to the long history of Muslims in America, and inspired her to change the focus of her dissertation.

“It changed my perspective,” she says. “My dissertation is now focused on how public archaeology can be used to inform the public on the understudied African Muslim presence in America. The presence of African Muslims in America has been documented at least five centuries before Columbus. The fact is, that they were here before the Constitution was even written and they were instrumental in the foundation of the United States. Their beliefs and practices are found throughout our everyday society, and I think it’s important for people to realize that and appreciate their contributions.”

Equally important, she says, is that “people need to realize that Islam is a religion of peace.”

The dig itself was also important for reasons above and beyond its subject. While they were in the field they held talks for community members at the site, and eventually students and other groups were able to participate on the site. “It was a great opportunity for everyone to get involved and see archaeology in action,” Carey says. Students were able to experience archaeology in a hands-on way unheard of for most urban youth.

The dig was completed in November 2015. Unfortunately, they did not find the foundation of Mamout’s original home or his burial site, though Carey continues to analyze artifacts in her lab in Florida in the hopes of finding something definitively related to him. But, regardless of the results of the dig, for Carey it was still a success.

“I went to graduate school with the purpose of giving voice to the voiceless, telling the stories you might not be taught in history classes,” she says. “That wasn’t exactly how I started – I came with the intent of zooarchaeology, but I was so intrigued by having the opportunity to tell Mamout’s story, and that is what made me want to get involved and learn more.”

For more information, updates on progress and upcoming lectures, and any questions, check out the Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project page.