Sarah Rose took a scalpel and carefully scraped off the dark brown outer layer of a 200-year-old femur and collected the specks in a plastic box. By the shape of the bone, she could tell this man or woman – it’s hard to say by looking – had well-defined muscles. Maybe this person worked a labor-intensive job, Rose said. Maybe this person was enslaved.
Rose’s eyes are focused. This isn’t the first time the Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student has worked with human remains.
She’s been trained not to think about the tragedies the people endured that led to their bodies being inspected by a forensic scientist. She tries to concentrate on the task at hand, grinding down a small portion of the bone to conduct DNA analysis.
But in a case like this, it’s impossible to ignore how this person was treated in life and death: possibly enslaved, robbed from the grave, discarded in a well, excavated in a hurry and forgotten in a Smithsonian storage facility.
“The gravity of the situation brings you back in,” Rose said.
All these years later, after so much was taken and forgotten, could she and a team of researchers restore their identities?
They hope to learn the ancestry, hair color, eye color and perhaps birthplace of this person and 52 others who were found under a VCU Health building in 1994. If the best-case scenario comes true, they will match the DNA to descendants still living today.
Then the VCU researchers will rebury the dead, hopefully bringing back the dignity they were never afforded.
“The feeling is,” said Joseph Jones, a professor from the College of William & Mary and one of the project’s leaders, “these are people who were lost to the community.”
A dig gone wrong
In 1994, construction workers laying the foundation for the Kontos Medical Sciences Building made a discovery. Twenty-five feet below ground, near the end of East Marshall Street, they found a well filled with human remains, leather shoes, glass bottles and mud.
VCU called its chief archaeologist, L. Daniel Mouer, who could smell the decomposition. He found bones and what appeared to be hair and skin.
But VCU refused to delay construction and gave Mouer only a weekend to excavate the remains. When the deadline arrived, a backhoe plowed into the earth, pulling up the bones and dirt, and Mouer watched in disbelief. What couldn’t be collected quickly was left behind.
What was recovered included more than 400 bones belonging to at least 44 adults and nine children. Two rib bones belonged to an infant, and two more to a newborn. Many of the skeletons were incomplete.
Researchers studied the skulls and determined most of them were of African ancestry. It’s likely the individuals were robbed from their graves, used as medical cadavers for the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College – which later became the Medical College of Virginia and eventually VCU.
Throughout the 19th century, the school hired workers known as resurrectionists to illegally dig up bodies, often from the Shockoe Hill African burial ground, a mile north at the intersection of North Fifth and Hospital streets, wrote VCU archivist Jodi Koste in a report.
When the bodies served no further use, they were dumped in a well.
The bones show signs of medical examination – there are cuts and nicks from scalpels, suggesting students learned how to amputate a limb and saw a skull in half to remove the brain. The cut marks are crude and incomplete, the work of amateurs learning their craft.
Alongside the bones, Mouer found detritus – 25 leather shoes, olive green glass bottles, the remains of three dogs and a cat. The articles dated to the mid-1800s.
After the remains and artifacts were pulled from the ground, they were shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where VCU largely forgot about them for the next 15 years. It wasn’t until 2011 when VCU professor Shawn Utsey made a documentary on the topic titled “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies” that interest was rekindled.
VCU formed several committees of employees and local residents to decide how the school should proceed. The decision: bring the bones home and respectfully rebury them. But first, find out as much as possible about who these people were.
In January, 28 years after the bones left Richmond, they came back to VCU in paperboard boxes draped in colorful Ghanaian burial cloth called Adinkra.
The VCU committees wrestled with the question of how to proceed. DNA extraction is an invasive process that requires further disturbing the remains.
There are four basic steps to DNA analysis, which will take two-plus years to complete: extracting the DNA from the bones, quantifying it, preparing it for analysis and sequencing it.
There are two types of sequencing. First: short tandem repeats, or STR, the type of sequencing the FBI conducts at a crime scene to match a suspect to a strand of hair. VCU researchers will use STR to match bones belonging to the same person.
Second: single nucleotide polymorphism, which the researchers call SNP or “snips.” They’ll use SNP to determine the person’s sex, hair color, eye color, height and blood type.
SNP will also tell the researchers the ancestry of each individual, which the Smithsonian already determined for some of the bones. Most of the people found in the well were of African descent. At least two were European, and six were undetermined.
While the bones make up at least 53 different individuals, Mouer found only 12 intact skulls. The reason why is a mystery. They may have never made it into the well – skulls tend to be collectors’ items, though there’s no evidence the students took them. Or they may still be there, deeper in the mud.
Using chemical analysis on the teeth, the researchers will try to determine if the people lived in Africa before coming to the U.S. Elements such as calcium and strontium in food are incorporated into the teeth and bones. By analyzing the strontium, the researchers hope to tell where the people lived.
The pie-in-the-sky goal is to match the DNA to descendants alive today who have submitted their DNA to biotechnology companies such as Ancestry.com or 23andMe.
None of this work comes cheap. VCU purchased a machine called a TissueLyser, which can cost about $17,000, to grind the bones. It’ll need a handful of DNA prep kits – just one is near $20,000, which mix human building blocks with chemicals.
The research is in an early phase and determining a total cost is difficult. It could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“DNA is not cheap to do,” said Tal Simmons, a VCU forensic anthropologist and project leader. “It is really expensive.”
Universities across the South have confronted the forgotten remains of Black and enslaved people buried on campus. The University of Virginia found an unmarked African American cemetery next to the white cemetery in 2012. Recently, the University of Richmond rediscovered a cemetery for enslaved workers who lived on a plantation that eventually became the school’s campus.
There are no guarantees VCU’s work will bear results. Bone doesn’t provide as good a DNA sample as blood, hair or saliva. There’s no assurance the bones will provide usable DNA.
“All of this is best-case scenario what we’re hoping for,” Rose said. “We can’t really promise anything right now.”
There are too many bones to analyze each one. Small bones from the hands, feet and ribs will never be matched to their bodies. They’ll be buried together.
It’s unlikely the researchers will ever learn the people’s names. While there are some records of bodies robbed from their graves, the time frame doesn’t correspond with the well, said Ryan K. Smith, a VCU history professor. Even if an accurate record is located, it would nearly impossible to match names to bodies.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know who these people were, but I’d love to get close to who these people were, the time they lived and if we have any clues about what their lives were like before they became comingled bones. I’d love to know that,” Rose said.
The DNA analysis isn’t the beginning of the analysis of these bones – it’s the end. In 2012, researchers from the Smithsonian and other colleges cataloged the bones and artifacts, visually studying each piece. They found a bevy of clues.
A researcher found one skull whose teeth were stained black from tobacco. There were concave dents between the incisors and canines where a pipe would fit.
Lacking dental care, their teeth often decayed or fell out. Signs of arthritis were widespread. Bones in the lower back degenerated. One child lived with a herniated disk. Worn-down bones were the result of “active lifestyles involving physical exertion” and a pattern of physical labor that began in childhood. One person’s leg bones bowed, a symptom of rickets. Another had tuberculosis in the spinal column.
Some experienced traumatic deaths. A male of European ancestry suffered a splinter lodged in the outer edge of his eye socket, penetrating his brain. Another man endured two holes in the top of his skull, likely low-velocity gunshot wounds. The skull shows cuts from a saw – perhaps a surgeon’s attempt to remove the projectiles. But the bone shows no sign of healing, meaning the man didn’t survive surgery.
Acknowledging unrecognized legacy
Each day at the VCU lab begins with a student reciting a statement posted on the bookshelf. The researchers “acknowledge the lives, history and unrecognized legacy” of these individuals and “pay our respect to elders both past and present.”
Amber Mundy, 22 and a graduate student on the project, sees this as an opportunity to memorialize Black lives – something seldom done in early American history. While white Americans were placed under gravestones, Black Americans sometimes were placed in unmarked graves in cemeteries forgotten and built over.
Mundy, who is Black, thinks about the difference between Egyptian pharaohs mummified and placed in museums and Black Americans, whose grave sites were neglected.
“They get a beautiful glass box, and I get a building built over my people,” she said. “My cemeteries are just dirt.”
One purpose for conducting DNA analysis is to determine what kind of burial ceremonies are appropriate for these people, said Rhonda Keyes Pleasants, a local funeral home manager and committee leader.
In Ghana, for example, carpenters design custom-made burial containers – a man who owned a Mercedes-Benz was buried in a coffin shaped like a car, complete with the Mercedes logo on the grill.
The VCU committees hope to rebury the individuals at the African American burial ground downtown or Evergreen Cemetery. A final destination has not been determined.
The way these bodies were treated in the 1800s still bothers Rose, the graduate student researcher. But what shocks her more is how little value was placed on them as recently as 1994, when they were quickly and partially excavated.
There are still human remains until the Kontos building, and historical records suggest a second well of bodies exists under the Egyptian Building. It’s unclear if either well is accessible.
“It’s horrible to think about how these remains were treated this way in my lifetime,” said Rose, 33.
That’s why she collects every speck of dust she grinds off the bones. It will all be reburied one day.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism