Archaeology and African-American Cemeteries

South Carolina SC African-Americans Grave Matters – Introduction Archaeology and African-American Cemeteries

Relatively few African-American cemeteries have been explored archaeologically. There are several reasons for this – many cemeteries dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century plantations are just never found, others are removed by undertakers without the benefit of archaeological study, and a very few are simply preserved or set aside.

One of the very best studied African-American graveyards in the South Carolina low country was exposed just outside Charleston during the construction of a motel. No archaeological survey had been required, so we aren't sure what above ground indications there might have been. Fortunately, however, the heavy equipment operators did the right thing and stopped when bone was first noticed. Archaeologists and forensic anthropologists were called in and the remains were excavated for study and reburial. While only 36 skeletons were identified, all dated from about 1840 through 1870.

This study helped confirm some of what we know historically and added much to our knowledge of African-American diet and disease. The average age at death for males was a young 35 years, while females lived a few years longer, to about 40. There was evidence among both the males and females of severe dietary stress during childhood, especially during the period from about 2 to 4 years old. Anemia was a significant problem, being found in about 80% of the subadults and over a third of the adults. There were indications of infections in many of the individuals buried at this graveyard. There was likewise clear skeletal evidence of the demanding physical labor these people were forced to undertake. The shoulder and hips were especially affected by degenerative changes. Perhaps most surprisingly, chemical studies also revealed that these African-American slaves were exposed to very high levels of lead in their diet, probably from the ceramics from which they ate.

This cemetery also helped us better understand burial practices among slaves and freedmen shortly after the Civil War. For example, the burials were typically fairly shallow, with none being deeper than perhaps four feet. There was evidence of both coffins and bodies wrapped in shrouds. A large number of coffin hardware items were recovered, including handles, thumbscrews, escutcheons, studs, coffin screws and tacks, and several coffin plates. In fact, at least seven silvered coffin plates were found. Curiously, there is one account of African-American folklore in the Bennett Papers which explains that a "silver coffin-plate with the name of the deceased is believed to confine the spirit of the dead to its proper resting-place to constrain it to remain within the coffin."

Many other graveyards, such as the one at Palmetto Grove, have simply had the identifiable grave depressions mapped, and have been left in place. Since the burials are not removed we don't have the opportunity to learn more about the people who where buried there, but the site is preserved, being set aside. Often, this may be preferable to the community.


Grave Matters – Introduction
History of Black Cemeteries
Archaeology of Black Cemeteries
Differences of Black Cemeteries
Preservation of Black Cemeteries
How You Can Help
More Information
Important Resources
The Chicora Foundation


Understanding Slavery
Free Blacks in Charleston
Preserving Black Cemeteries
Mitchelville Experiment
Quash Stevens Letters