The three dozen sets of remains found at the Gaillard auditorium construction site have been determined to be of African ancestry, filling in one important piece of a still emerging puzzle.
And while one question has been answered, there are still a number of unknowns that archaeologists are eager to follow up.
Among them: Were they free people of color? Or were they slaves tied to the growing wealth of an expanding port city?
What were their religious beliefs? And what was particularly significant about that corner of Charleston 250 years ago?
“They were placed there in a fairly organized way,” lead archaeologist Eric Poplin, of Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting in Mount Pleasant, said this week while discussing the find at the Charleston County Library.
Survivors came together on that spot “to bury people who were a part of that community,” he added.
Another revelation: a tiny coin — identified as a English King George III half-penny — found with one set of the remains shows a minting date of 1773. The year gives archaeologists a fresh reference point of where to continue their research after previous estimates were that the group had gone into the ground possibly as early as the 1690s.
Still, 1773 likely is a starting point. “The coins probably don’t come here immediately after their minting,” Poplin said.
The findings come in connection with the 37 grave pits (one had no discernible remains) discovered in February buried 10 feet beneath the surface of the Gaillard Center construction site. Workers using trench-digging equipment accidentally broke into a human skull, temporarily slowing construction on the auditorium’s $142 million makeover.
Of the 36 sets of remains, 33 were positively identified as being of African descent, Poplin said. The make-up of the remaining three could not be determined.
Sixteen of the remains were identified as male and 11 were female, while the others also could not be determined.
The condition of some of the bones also showed their owners faced a life of strenuous or repetitive activities similar to what might go with slave work. There were no obvious signs of disease on any of the remains.
Poplin hopes that through the use of isotope analysis, researchers can pinpoint where in Africa that members of the group were born and raised, or even if they were born in South Carolina. Other aspects of the research are still emerging, he said.
One of the remains also had a decorative stone bead with it. Poplin said he’s heard of similar stone beads associated with slave research that was done up north in Massachusetts.
Among the other items found with the graves were coins meant to cover eyes (as was also a tradition), along with buttons and bits of broken ceramics. Some had clothing; others went into the ground covered by shrouds. One wooden casket was detected.
All the remains had been lying on their backs and facing east in the accepted Christian tradition.
Nicholas Butler, public historian with the Charleston County Public Library, said one fascinating point about the graveyard is that it may predate the time when Charleston became more concerned with recording deaths in the city and regulating where burial sites could go.
“It might be one of the last burials, who knows?” Butler said.
While the research continues, Charleston City Council is in a holding pattern on its next move of deciding where the remains might be reinterred and under what sort of ceremony.
Evidence of African culture wasn’t the only clue found in the graves. Some of the site’s fill dirt also contained bits of Native American ceramics, possibly as much as 4,000 years old.
Their inclusion showed the site was once a sandy ridge near the water and probably a desirable place to live back then, Poplin said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.
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