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The Dead Do Tell Tales
Colonial-Era Burial Project Provides Current Research Cohort

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...
Of necessity, the approach is modern, clinical and, arguably, cold. Numbers -- not even names like John and Jane Doe -- are assigned. That would be too impractical, for there are 427 skeletons of unknown corpses being examined and analyzed in the African Burial Ground Project at Howard University. Frequently, however, in the course of the 9-year project begun in 1992, the evidence itself introduces emotional and spiritual elements that undermine any effort to keep a purely scientific face on the proceedings.

Take, for instance, the slide of burial plot B340. The only thing apparent to an untrained eye is a group of bones arranged loosely in the form of a human skeleton. Upon closer examination and with clues pointed out by burial project head and lecturer Dr. Michael Blakey, a life story is sketched.

Since 1992, more than 400 graves like this one have been excavated for study from a construction site in Manhattan by archaeologists of the African Burial Ground Project. NIH'ers were recently briefed on the project's findings, which will be completed by 2000.

Before being excavated by archaeologists 5 or 6 years ago, B340 was a cavity of earth occupied by a deceased Black woman of childbearing age. That she was a slave, probably from a region of west or central Africa, is not in question. Her approximate height at death can also be determined. She worked extremely hard doing manual labor, one can tell, from the lesions on her thigh and arm bones that denote excessive, repetitive stress. That crook in her right elbow? Look closely and one can see more skeletal remains, tinier than the others, scattered, but concentrated around the woman's right arm and ribs. She was apparently buried cradling her newborn in her arm, probably not too long after delivering the child, Blakey concluded. As the packed conference room he was addressing peered at the slide screen and seemed to digest this information in uncomfortable silence, the scientist filled the quiet space.

The position of this skeleton, along with the scattered bits of bone found near the crooked elbow, indicate this woman was buried cradling her newborn in her arm. Archaeologists say she was a slave most likely brought from west or central Africa in the 1700's to the former New Amsterdam region of North America that we now call New York.

"From the very beginning," he explained, "this project has evoked a broad range of interest and emotion. By the time our project is finished, these will not be simply memorials to the unknown African. We will be able to say something about these people."

The African Burial Ground Project was established as an afterthought in 1992. During the previous summer, while excavation for a $500 million General Services Administration construction project in downtown New York City was under way, workers disrupted a number of unmarked gravesites, some as deep as 28 feet beneath street level. As is customary under such circumstances since the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, construction was delayed while a team of archaeologists was hired to examine the area more fully and determine what could be done to mitigate effects of the excavation.

By fall 1991, contract archaeologists believed that no more than 50 bodies had occupied the 14,000-square-foot site, which was adjacent to a designated 18th century "Negros Burying Ground" that had probably been used for more than a century. The scientists had grossly underestimated the number of burials, however, as dozens more skulls, bones and artifacts continued to be unearthed. By December 1991, at least 200 skeletons could be recognized and by March 1992 the count had exceeded 400. To the astonishment of almost all involved, the 5 acres of land (bordered on four sides by Broadway, Elk, Duane and Reade Streets) surrounding the city block under construction in lower Manhattan was determined to be the largest and earliest African burial site in the nation. Enter the community.

While the archaeologists had been working feverishly night and day to remove this unforeseen -- and unwelcome -- abundance of historic bones from the construction zone, folks in neighboring New York communities had grown increasingly concerned about the haste with which removal was being conducted. Questions began cropping up in the media and at civic gatherings: What was going to happen to the remains? Was the removal being handled with the proper respect reserved for memorials? Who had rights and responsibilities to the bones and artifacts? Who were these colonial slave ancestors found so far north of the Jim Crow South? Hearing the public outcry, Congress intervened. In October 1992, the groundwork for the African Burial Ground Project was laid in a 130-page research design proposal by Howard University's W.M. Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory.

By fall 1993, with construction indefinitely postponed and removal efforts stopped, Blakey and his team of experienced researchers of African and African American populations undertook the painstaking task of rewriting history based solely on millions of fragments -- bones, teeth, beads, and other burial artifacts. At the invitation of NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity, the scientist visited NIH Mar. 27 to discuss the project's progress and offer a preliminary overview of its final report due in 2000.

Following an introduction by OEO Diversity Program Manager O.H. Laster, Blakey put the work in historical context: From 1492 to 1776, about 6 million people came from the old world to the Americas, according to some accounts of history. Only 1 million of those people were European. The rest were mainly African. By about 1660, it is estimated that the population of New York (then called New Amsterdam, as settled by Dutch immigrants) was 40 percent African. The newly discovered burial project represents only a small portion of the approximately 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks who died in the region in that era.

The project seeks to answer four major questions: Where did the people come from originally? What was their physical quality of life? What biological and cultural transformations took place as the Africans became African Americans? In what ways did they resist slavery?

"We have a large enough sample to generalize about the population," Blakey said, explaining that many conclusions have already been drawn and corroborated by the remains. About 50 percent of New York's colonial Africans died by age 12, he said. Thirty or 40 percent of those died in infancy. About 40 percent of the skeletons found belonged to preadolescent children, many of them with thickened skulls indicating anemia and osteomalacia (weakening of the bones due to poor diet and nutrition). Enlarged muscle attachments seen in the skeletons have been attributed to heavy stress loads borne by the slaves. Signs of arthritis in the neck bones were probably caused by toting heavy items on the head -- a traditional African practice -- and lesions on the thigh bones probably resulted from muscle and ligament tears, Blakey said. "These people were obviously working at the very margins of human endurance and capacity," he said. "Arguably, a few were worked to death in a time when it was considered cost-effective to work slaves to death. Even some 6-year-old children show signs of being worked in what we would today consider an extreme way."

The slide of another numbered burial plot was unique, however. It belonged to one of the few slaves who probably did not meet death through overwork or malnutrition. The skeleton of a 22-year-old woman was found with a musket ball lodged in her chest cavity. Her bones also showed multiple signs of physical trauma and several blunt force injuries. She had been shot in the back. "Generally, we found very little evidence of interpersonal violence among the population," Blakey said, "but this woman was an obvious exception."

Acknowledging that his study population was impoverished, the archaeologist said the most frequent artifact uncovered was a shroud pin, which was often used in colonial times to fasten the burial wrap. Most people were not buried in their clothes in those days, he noted. More than 500 such pins were found. Scientists will use the copper stains left by the pins on bones to figure out how shrouds were draped and tied. The methods used to bury the dead can shed light on cultural influences and practices of a people, Blakey said.

Also found were cufflinks, coins, rings, and scattered beads from bracelets, earbobs and necklaces. Complicating the study, he admitted, is the fact that initial excavation with backhoes scooped away the first layer of what might have been valuable clues about the people. Blakey noted that in a number of regions of Africa, items placed on top of bodies laid to rest told a great deal about the circumstances of the deceased. Surprisingly, one child's skeleton being studied in the project had been buried with a teardrop-shaped pendant made of pure silver.

"Here you have an obviously very poor group of people who, instead of selling the silver to improve their lives somehow, chose to bury the most valuable item with their child," said Blakey. "That says something about the culture and the people. We can learn a lot by taking this biocultural, biohistorical approach to the project. We're looking at the social and economic profiles of these people as well as what information they can share about the health and well-being of contemporary people...There are many bridges being built here, as we fill in the many gaps."

The skeletons have now been moved to Howard's Washington, D.C., campus for study. Tours of the facility can be scheduled by contacting the project laboratory director, Mark Mack, (202) 806-5252.

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