In Timbuctoo lies a hill. Underneath that hill lies a house, or what archaeologists think might have been a house once upon a time. The silver clasp of a woman's handbag, piles of Mason jars, chips of dinner plates and an empty jar of Dixie Peach Pomade lie among the bricks that have broken away from the foundation.
These are crushed fragments of a past life when free black people lived in this New Jersey community almost 200 years ago -- free even then, 45 years before Emancipation. "Most of the history of this country is in that house," says David Orr, a classical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Temple University. Orr is standing at the site down a gray road in Timbuctoo. A hot wind is blowing.
Orr said that the buried community has the potential to be a very important find in African American history. "Timbuctoo is great in a larger context because it lasted, some of it, into the 20th century," he said. "It also has a very large descendant community, so ethnographically it is important."
Timbuctoo was founded by freed blacks and escaped slaves in the 1820s. It was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name. The neighborhood still exists in the township of Westampton, N.J., about a 45-minute drive northeast of Philadelphia, an enclave of many acres, so tiny and tucked away that when you ask someone at the store two miles away, he tells you he has no idea where it is.
Timbuctoo has always been a secret kind of a place. Had to be, because it was part of the Underground Railroad. There are newer houses here now where some descendants of original settlers still live. But much of the physical history of Timbuctoo is buried underground. Based on a geophysical survey, archaeologists believe that foundations of a whole village of perhaps 18 houses and a church dating back to the 1820s lies beneath layers of dirt.
In June, those archaeologists from Temple University in Philadelphia began unraveling Timbuctoo's secrets, excavating the hill next to a Civil War cemetery where African American troops are buried. The discoveries are fragile and ordinary artifacts of everyday life -- jars for medicines and cosmetics, pieces of shoes, dinner plates -- but to the people unearthing them, they are invaluable.