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Grave Shafts Discovered During Archaeological Survey for U.Va. Cemetery Expansion

An archaeological survey undertaken in preparation for a planned expansion of the University of Virginia Cemetery has so far uncovered the locations of 30 previously unrecorded grave shafts.

The identities of those who may be buried there and the dates are unknown, but Jody Lahendro, historic preservation architect in U.Va.’s Facilities Planning and Construction office, said a survey will be conducted with thoroughness, care and respect to define the boundaries of the burial ground.

“This is a significant find for the University and an opportunity for us to learn more about U.Va.’s history and the people who lived and worked in this community,” he said.

Because of this discovery, the University will begin exploring alternative sites for expansion, beginning with those identified in the 2006 cemetery master plan, said Patrick D. Hogan, U.Va. executive vice president and chief operating officer.  “We will complete the archaeological survey of this site in an attempt to find its historic boundaries, but the University intends to leave these gravesites undisturbed. I suspect these findings will now lead to a University conversation that includes scholarly inquiry and appropriate memorialization.”

Located near the corner of Alderman and McCormick roads, the University Cemetery has served since 1828 as the final resting place for many of the most prominent figures in University history. A columbarium wall was added in the 1990s to inter ashes of University community members.

The U.Va. Cemetery Committee makes recommendations concerning the general appearance and maintenance of the cemetery and columbarium, determines criteria for eligibility for purchase and burial, and assists in developing guidelines for the administration of the plots and columbarium vaults. The committee supported the planned expansion, which was to include 192 in-ground burial sites and 125 niches in a columbarium wall that would continue in line with the existing columbarium.

Last spring, in the survey’s initial phase, Rivanna Archaeological Services LLC looked for evidence of habitation through the presence of material culture – pieces of discarded ceramic, glass, metal and the like. At that time, nothing of significance was discovered.

A second phase – removing surface soils across the area –   began Oct. 22, with the University’s Facilities Management landscaping crew scraping and clearing topsoil under the direction of Benjamin Ford, principal of Rivanna Archaeological Services.

“At the time we proposed this second phase to the University, we really had no information that anyone could potentially be buried here,” Ford said.

Most recently, the area had served as a plant nursery for Facilities Management. In some places as much as two feet of topsoil had to be removed, since so much fill soil had been deposited. The site is north of a section of the cemetery that was expanded in 1913.

Once the topsoil was removed, archaeologists were able to identify different soil colors and textures, indicating the tops of grave shafts. The rectangular shapes of the graves and the orange-red clay Albemarle clay fill stand out from the surrounding pale-colored soils.

During the topsoil removal, grave markers, fieldstones and broken marble headstones were also discovered. Despite this, there are no indicators from the burial ground itself as to who might be buried there. Nine of the shafts are small, indicating possible burials of children. Ford said a historic fence line has been discovered, which also may be associated with the burial ground.

“Right now, we have no names,” Ford said. “We do not know who these individuals were. The only archival evidence that we’ve come across to date suggests that they might be enslaved African-Americans, although it’s possible that there are post-Emancipation burials as well.”

He cited an 1898 U.Va. Alumni Bulletin, in which Col. Charles Christian Wertenbaker, son of University Librarian William Wertenbaker, recalled that “in old times, the University servants were buried on the north side of the cemetery, just outside of the wall.” At that time, the area north of the cemetery would have included the current expansion area.

Previously unknown burial sites at the University have come to light before. In 2005, before the construction of the South Lawn, Rivanna Archaeological Services conducted an archaeological survey of land owned in the 19th century by a free black family.

Today, the homestead of Catherine “Kitty” Foster, who lived adjacent to the University from 1833 to 1863 on Venable Lane, is preserved as a one-acre park and memorial near the South Lawn. The footprint of the house is marked by a steel frame structure called the “Shadow Catcher” that projects an outline of the structure onto the ground below. The 32-grave cemetery is enclosed in a low stone wall. Interpretive panels are placed on the site to explain its historical significance.

Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, said the University continues to seek ways to memorialize the contributions of free and enslaved African-Americans to U.Va. Earlier this year, a marker was dedicated to commemorate Henry Martin, U.Va.’s longtime bellringer, who was born into slavery at Monticello in 1826.

“We hope to eventually be able to say with some degree of confidence whether the people buried here were African-American, were enslaved, or whether they had any connection at all to the University,” he said. “No matter the result of that research, this site appears to be a wonderful opportunity for preservation, beautification and commemoration.”

To control erosion, the site has been entirely covered with plastic and a silt fence installed at the base of the excavations. A plastic barrier fence has been installed around the site and across the gate. The University is closely monitoring the site and has increased police patrols in the vicinity while additional surveillance is being determined. Cemetery visitors and pedestrians are asked to stay away from the burial site out of respect for those who may be interred.

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