Last time I asked “what is it,” I had an answer for you. This time, not so much. These two mystery tablets were found in the 1960s, buried in a suburban yard near Seven Locks and Montrose Roads. They are made of black slate (11″ wide, 9.75″ high, about 1″ thick), decoratively shaped and carved in almost matching designs. One is marked (carved) on the back “1827,” and the other is marked “27 R.” There’s no writing on the fronts; the incised lines appear to have been filled in at one point with yellow pigment of some kind, and the front and sides are painted (red and black). Finally, each has two holes in the center of the back, as if they were attached to something.

Here's one...

The homeowners moved to Willerburn Acres off Seven Locks Road in the 1960s, into one of the first homes in the neighborhood. While doing landscaping they found these two items along with some flagstones and wooden boards, a necklace, and a baby’s cup (uninscribed). The slate tablets perplexed them so much that they took them to someone at the Smithsonian, who didn’t know what they were either. The family hung on to these curiosities until they moved out of state in 2005, when they donated them to the Historical Society for us to ponder.

...and here's the other.

So what are they? Slate has been used for many things, including tombstones, but if they’re meant as grave markers they’re rather obscure (and not quite the right size, it seems to me, even for footstones).  All the edges are finished, so they’re not broken off of a larger piece. They were definitely attached to something, but maybe that came later – a 19th century version of repurposing antiques (like turning an old door into a headboard), maybe? Were they part of a large slate fireplace surround, or even part of a slate altar… or maybe the ends of pews? A search for those two things on the internet found many examples in England (especially Wales and Cornwall), and a few in the New England/Pennsylvania area. Black slate, like this, can be found in Pennsylvania. (There were also a few slate quarries around the base of Sugarloaf Mountain and in Ijamsville, Frederick County, although I believe they produced a bluish-gray stone.)

"1827" and the attachment holes.

But the two pieces don’t quite match each other; the designs are spaced a little differently, and only one has a curved profile to the, um, sticky-up parts. (Architectural terms: not my forte.) Why don’t they match? Was one a later copy, to replace a design element that broke? Were these someone’s practice pieces? Is 1827 a date, or something less obviously helpful? What’s the significance, if any, of the linear design?  (Have I photographed them upside down?)

As for their location, Willerburn Acres is built on land that once belonged to two different 18th century tracts: Resurvey on Black Oak Thicket, patented by Ninian Magruder in 1742 (and resurveyed in 1754), and Scotland, patented in 1732 by Andrew Tannehill. I have not been able to find anything showing the location of any houses or other buildings (or cemeteries) within those tracts, so I can’t tell if the donors’ home was, say, right on top of Magruder’s [hypothetical] slate workshop.

So I and my colleagues are at a loss (although I’m leaning toward the fireplace surround theory, and am enjoying coming up with scenarios. Maybe Uncle Richard liked to carve slate, and these were his rejects? Or Cousin Ralph brought them from Pittsburgh, but couldn’t figure out where to put them in his new home? I could do this for days*). Help us out, creative and knowledgeable blog readers! Ever seen a footstone (or anything at all) like these? Recognize the designs as traditionally [insert European, African or religious culture here]? Remember hearing about an old church somewhere on Ninian Magruder’s land? Help us solve the Mystery of the Slate Tablets!

* I am making those names up. Please do not use them when doing Magruder family research.

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