One of the men had a bowl fragment from a smoker’s pipe with him. Another had a gun flint, something that would be a vital daily necessity along Colonial Charleston’s early frontier.
Yet who they were is anybody’s guess.
The preliminary report on the 37 sets of early Colonial-era remains found last month at the Gaillard Center construction site sheds little new light on their race, sex or occupations.
Based on the few trinkets and minimal coffin materials found, each member of the group probably came from the lower rungs of society and were buried at different intervals between 1690 and 1750.
Also left open is whether they were slaves from Africa or European settlers who died in the New World some time after the Charleston peninsula began being settled in 1680.
“Since all the (property) owners of record for the property are buried in other cemeteries in Charleston, the interred individuals may be the servants or slaves associated with the households of the landowners,” wrote Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist with Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting.
“Alternately, the graves may be associated with nearby residents of Charles Towne who lacked access to church yards or other cemeteries, and who opted to bury their relatives at this location, on someone else’s land.”
Poplin’s report came as Charleston City Council passed a resolution Tuesday calling for a full study of the remains, while leaving until later the discussion of where the group should be reinterred.
If research or DNA markers show the skeletons are connected family members, they all could be buried in church ground off site, officials said. Another possibility is that City Council could honor them collectively by putting them back into the ground at the Gaillard, setting aside a portion as a recognized formal cemetery.
Poplin’s report came after work in the southwest corner of the $142 million Gaillard arts center makeover was halted for several weeks last month when workers using trench-digging equipment accidentally broke into a human skull buried about 10 feet deep.
In quick succession officials uncovered what appeared to be an organized but forgotten cemetery, with 37 sets of remains in four rows.
Poplin’s latest count indicates that 30 of the remains belong to adults, with three likely male and four likely female; the sex of others is as yet undetermined. Three graves contained juveniles; one was an infant.
All the remains had been lying on their backs and facing east in the accepted Christian tradition.
Among the items found with the graves were coins meant to cover eyes (as was also a tradition), along with buttons and bits of broken ceramics. Thirty-six of the 37 bodies appear to have gone into the ground with burial shrouds as covering, another indicator of lower status.
The evidence further shows that the space separation between the graves was roughly the same, indicating that the site was an active burial ground for several years and was not dug in connection to a sudden occurrence such as mass sickness.
Poplin also has a theory as to under whose watch the group was buried. Land records indicate that during the time that the site was active it was associated with two early prominent Charleston residents, Isaac Mazyck and Thomas Gadsden.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said a better idea of what the research finds will come clearer in the next two months. So far the excavation, removal, study and cost for providing funeral home oversight has run about $40,000.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.
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