Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Colonial Williamsburg Launches Excavations of First Baptist Church Burial Site

(Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — Researchers and archaeologists with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) began their burial excavations at the site of the original First Baptist Church structure on Jul. 18.

It’s anticipated by CWF that it will take around two months to fully excavate three individual grave shafts all located in different parts of the site. The excavation process involves researchers documenting, as well as recovering, any remains or artifacts that may be discovered at the site.

“We are currently at the soil that fills the end of the first grave that we are excavating, and we’re currently down to the top of the coffin that this person is in,” said CWF’s Director of Archeology Jack Gary in an interview with WYDaily.

“When I say coffin, you can imagine it’s wood but it’s very decayed, so it’s not like it’s solid and you can’t just open it up,” he explained. “You can see the stain in the ground of where that coffin was, and we just need to continue to take that soil off around the stain of the wood, document it, and then we will carefully peel back any wood or the stain left behind by the wood which will then reveal the actual skeletal remains of the first person that we’re excavating.”

According to CWF, there have been 41 grave shafts identified by archeologists at this time. Three were selected for excavation. Two of the burials were selected because they were easily identifiable as single graves.

“We wanted to pick a number that was manageable for us to actually excavate in a timely manner to get results back to the community, but also to look at three different areas of the cemetery itself,” said Gary. “The three are placed in three different locations. They kind of make a triangle across the area where all the burials are. It’s really hard to define how many people could be in one area. So we wanted to make sure that we just dealing with one individual per grave.

“There are a couple of reasons for that,” he added. “One, we wanted to see if the preservation of the bone was different at different parts of the site, because you can have burials that are in close proximity of each other where one is in great shape but in a couple of burials over one is in horrible shape. So we wanted to see if we had good preservation across the entire cemetery, or if it was variable.

“The other reason is that cemeteries grow over time and so we didn’t want to concentrate in just one area because we wanted to get an idea of how long people have been buried in this cemetery,” he continued. “So looking in three different locations assumes that we’re looking at three different time periods when people were buried.”

CWF anticipates the excavation process will take approximately two months. The skeletal remains that are found will be sent to a lab for Osteological and DNA analysis. This process is anticipated to take from 6 months to a year to complete.

The Osteological Analysis will measure any recovered bones to get data about how old the person was, the sex of the person, and other basic information about the remains that were excavated.

“One the primary things we want to see in the DNA analysis is just confirming that these individuals are of African descent and that they definitively would’ve been members of the congregation,” said Gary. “We’re pretty sure that they were but with people being buried all over Williamsburg, quite frankly, and the church coming to this property not until the 1800s, there’s always the possibility that it could be something even earlier than when the church was here. I don’t think that’s the case but we want to make sure we know that. Especially for the community to say, okay these are our ancestors, and we’ll be able to determine that with a DNA analysis.”

In March 2022, The First Baptists Church descendant community voted in favor of archeologists excavating three grave shafts. The goal is to obtain a deep understanding of the race, age, and sex of the individuals buried at the site.

“This is a huge project for us, it’s one of the most important projects several of us will work on in our careers,” said Gary. “Archeology is not always operated like this in terms of communicating and partnering with the community but over the past decade or so archeologists, particularly in America, have really realized that when you’re working in a community if the community is still there, they need to be involved as part of that project. Community-engaged archeology is the future of our discipline so we’re happy to be at the forefront.”

For more updates on the excavation, please check out Colonial Williamsburg’s official website.

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