Coin in the Mouth or Shoe on the Coffin

A post-medieval adult skull with a coin in each eye orbit for the symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife. Via AOC Archaeology

In order to cross the river Styx, the deceased need to pay the ferryman Charon. Only after this are they welcome into the afterlife. During the burial, the living place coins either in the mouth or on the eyes of the deceased so that they can pay this fee. The custom is found archaeologically among Greek, Roman and a variety of Western European cultures. It is found in the 5th c. BCE all the way until the early 20th century. It is also a symbol of protection or a metaphorical food for the deceased. This rather famous practice is also found in popular culture such as the placement of the coins in the eyes after each kill in the Boondock Saints. While this practice is fairly well known, it isn’t the only magical object found in graves that is meant to ferry the individual into the afterlife or give protection.

Davidson (2010) discusses the presence of seemingly mundane objects in 19th to 20th century graves that are not usually found in this context. Excavations took place at the First African Baptist Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The site dates from 1824 to 1842. Of the 144 burials, 135 had great preservation allowing recovery of both the skeleton and grave furniture. These burials are associated with the typical historical grave goods including remnants of clothing, coffin fragments and occasional coffin hardware. However, there were a number of unusual artifacts in the graves such as ceramic plates, unmodified coins, and a single show lying on top of a coffin. While these could be considered incidental inclusions within the grave fill, a single shoe was found on 6 of the graves meaning that it is a patterned act rather than an accident.

Unique artifacts need to be interpreted carefully based on the type of object found, location of the object, relationship to the individual, and the cultural affiliation. Davidson (2010:615) discusses three possible reasons for these idiosyncratic objects: (1) “incidental inclusions that inadvertently fell into the grave while back filling or were accidentally left on the person of the deceased; (2) inclusions left in the coffin or casket by the undertaker or funeral home; (3) objects purposely placed by surviving family or friends—either in the coffin, on top of the coffin lid, superficially or within the grave fill, or at the base of the grave shaft adjacent to the burial container”. It is this final category that we are most interested in since it affords us the greatest insight into the worldview, religion and identity of the deceased or related survivors. However, it is completely dependent on the ability of the archaeologist to correctly interpret the artifacts.

Coins are instantly recognizable as a practice by the survivors to aid the deceased in their journey into the afterlife. The placement of the shoe on top of the grave isn’t well understood. Since the practice is found in a number of African-American cemeteries from the 19th century, in a consistent fashion of a single shoe on top of a grave, it does represent a known purposeful action rather than an accident. The practice was also found in two individuals at the Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas, Texas, and one burial from the Becky Wright Cemetery in Crawford, Arkansas. Both sites date to the mid-19th century and are associated primarily with African-Americans. Looking at the entire sample, Davidson (2010:622) notes that the practice is not clearly associated with a specific age or sex.

Historic shoes from Evans Cemetery grave, via Cultural Resource Analysts Inc

Other interpretations of the placement of a single shoe on the grave include that it was a requirement for the soul to pass into the afterlife with the shoe as a metaphor for a successful journey, or that it was a connotation of power meant to keep the devil or black magic away.  While shoes are associated with some medieval European traditions as good luck charms, the presence of this practice only in African-American cemeteries suggests that it is either African in origin or a creolized practice. African ethnographic literature contains no mention of shoes in religious, funerary or mortuary contexts. Given the lack of African evidence, it is supposed that the practice is a creolized version of European traditions. Throughout Europe shoes are seen as good luck charms that aid the dead on their journeys. In North America and the British Isles in the post-medieval period, a single shoe was given to individuals who were starting a new journey, such as marriage or youth moving out on their own. Davidson (2010:631) therefore posits that the single shoe on the burial was given to the dead for luck as they begin this new journey to the realm of the deceased.

Davidson (2010:641) concludes: “innovation of the shoe symbol within a mortuary context was likely not a rational decision formulated expressly to retain or hide an African belief system within a European symbol”. African-Americans maintained their core beliefs and filled in gaps with European practices. By combining the African belief in the liminal state of the soul of the dead and the British belief in the power of shoes as lucky charms for new journeys, this practice was created. Davidson does a great job in surveying the evidence from African and European ethnography, and a number of archaeological sites. While we still don’t know what the actual meaning of the shoe is, Davidson provides a strong interpretation for this practice.

Works Cited
ResearchBlogging.orgDavidson (2010). Keeping the Devil at Bay: The Shoe on the Coffin Lid and Other Grave Charms in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-century America Int J Histor Archaeol, 14 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-010-0123-9

10 responses to “Coin in the Mouth or Shoe on the Coffin

  1. So, this reminds me of Leone’s work at Wye House, where they’ve found West African-style charms that are at the same time distinct to the enslaved population there – I wonder if the shoe and other grave charms are similarly related to a sort of syncretic religious practice or creolization… and if tombs were being seen as metonymic for houses (as they are in other parts of the world as well).

    • Very interesting article. Not sure about the concept of the grave in these burials as a house, but I’ve got another article on the practice of grave vaulting in this period that I’m going to be posting on soon so I will keep that in mind!

  2. You must have come across the articles and popular press books regarding the African slave burial ground in Manhatten? Incredible site, amazing and diverse bioarchaeological data and mortuary ritual, and a well done museum to boot. Alas, repatriation occurred before many potential topics were investigated, but one can’t help but be moved by it all.

  3. Very interesting. I came here looking for the tradition of putting symbolic objects in the mouth as part of burial behavior. In my area of research, southwestern of Colombia, crystal rock beads were the most common element found in the mouth of the deceased during the 200 BC-200 AD period.

  4. Is it not common in some periods to have placed bags of spices in the mouth of the dead as well as sometimes bury them standing up for a 3 week period, after which the body was placed into a smaller container and stored in a family crypt or mausoleum. In some rare cases the skill was exhibited on a cave wall in close proximity to an ossuary. Often the bones were removed from a tomb o other type of internment, placed in a small box, and stored in a private home. In other cases the family would place them in the more permanent location decided by the family – such as a family tomb or similar structure.

  5. Is there a tradition/symbol placed on the dead to mean that the person was being punished for talking? I’m a writer and would like to use some of these symbols in my mystery novel. Thanks for your blog. It’s great.

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