Copper pennies meant to cover the eyes of the dead were discovered with two individuals at the Gaillard grave site, an indication that one of the world’s oldest burial beliefs was used in earliest Colonial Charleston.
After two weeks of sifting through the earth, the exhumation of 37 sets of remains is on pace to finish this afternoon, ending a slight — but educational — distraction to the $142 million makeover of the performing arts center.
Officials so far have been unable to determine the sex or racial makeup of the group, but know that mixed in with the adults are one infant, two juveniles and three others who were probably teenagers.
One of the younger members of the group was buried in what is believed to have been a higher quality coat. He was one of two individuals marked with coins.
Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist with Brockington Cultural Resources, said the presence of the pennies represents more proof of a common European and Christian tradition integrated into early 1700s Charleston when the graveyard is thought to have been first used.
Some believe the money was meant to be shared with relatives in the spirit world, or as payment for souls to cross into eternity.
Other Old World cultures put pennies on eyelids as a prevention against seeing their own deaths reflected back in the eyes of the dead.
While the practice has been seen in previous Charleston archaeological digs, Poplin said in this case it also could help determine how wealthy the community was.
Leaving money behind “does suggest there was a bit a of disposable income that a survivor was willing to part with,” he said.
The coins, on or near the skulls, are extremely corroded and may be as old as the late 1680s. Money from that time “stayed in circulation,” Poplin said. The coins also may be smaller denominations from that time, known as “half-pennies.”
Coins at the site also does not automatically eliminate the chance that the remains belong to native-born Africans brought to South Carolina as slaves, Poplin added.
The discovery adds to the mystery of the graves that were uncovered last month after workers opening a trough for a water line accidently exposed a human skull. Crews quickly found multiple plots arranged in four neat rows.
No cemetery at the site appears on aged city maps, sparking the theory that as the city grew and expanded northward, the land was either forgotten or intentionally covered over to make way for homes, neighborhoods and streets. The original Gaillard Auditorium dates to the 1960s.
Dustin Clemens, assistant director of capital projects for Charleston, said he doesn’t expect any more graves to be found, since most of the rest of the Gaillard’s grounds have been pretty much turned over.
Meanwhile, City Council is seeking public input on the site, including from any potential descendants, though records are thought to be minimal.
The remains are likely to be reinterred several months from now in a local cemetery, after the bones and artifacts are studied.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.