Burial Grounds, African

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Burial Grounds, African


The final resting places of enslaved and free people of African descent have been examined in diverse contexts throughout the New World. Ranging from late sixteenth-century Mexico to postemancipation Arkansas, these sites reflect the range and complexity of the African diasporic experience. Although many of these sites were examined within a historical forensic paradigm, the greater involvement of African Americans as both clients and producers of burial ground studies is fostering a historically and culturally grounded biocultural approach that is more responsive to the needs and interests of the descendant communities (Blakey 2001; Epperson 1999).

In 2000 construction activity in the city of Campeche on Mexicos Yucatan peninsula resulted in discovery of the foundation of an early cathedral and an associated multiethnic burial ground that was used from the mid-sixteenth century until the construction of a new cathedral in the late seventeenth century. Some 180 individuals were interred at this site, including at least 10 of African ancestry. The presence of dental modifications, in conjunction with strontium isotopic analysis, indicates that at least four of these individuals were born in West Africa. Although there is ample documentary evidence of African slavery in the Campeche region during this period, it should not necessarily be assumed that these individuals were enslaved (Handler and Lange 2006).

At the site of the Newton Plantation in southern Barbados the remains of 104 African-descent individuals interred between 1660 and 1820 have been analyzed. Of particular interest is Burial 72, a male about fifty years old who was buried during the late 1600s or early 1700s with a distinctive assemblage of grave goods suggestive of status as a healer/diviner (Handler 1997; Handler and Lange 1978). In a very different plantation context, investigation of the Belleview Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, included a sample of twenty-seven individuals who died between 1840 and 1870. These individuals had a high incidence of anemia and infection as well as skeletal changes associated with very demanding physical labor (Rathbun and Scurry 1991).

Excavations in the multiethnic St. Peter Street Cemetery in the French Quarter of New Orleans recovered remains of eighteen individuals, at least ten of whom were of African descent. This cemetery was in use as early as 1720 until the end of the eighteenth century. Within the African American burials, investigators noted the presence of Roman Catholic grave goods and suggested the presence of two occupational groups: house servants and laborers (Owsley et al. 1987).

The African Burial Ground in New York City was in use from the late seventeenth century until about 1795. Excavations conducted in 19911992 recovered the remains of more than four hundred African-born and African American individuals. Analysis of these remains revealed evidence of the rigors of urban slavery as well as the survival and nurturance of West African cultural traditions. Pressure from the descendant community resulted in the development of a research design that placed greater emphasis on the historical and cultural context of the burial ground. The remains were reinterred on the site in 2003 (General Services Administration 2006; LaRoche and Blakey 1997).

Analysis of over 140 burials recovered from the First African Baptist Church Cemetery (in use c. 18221848) in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, revealed that antebellum free African Americans shared many of the rigors of their enslaved kin, suffering high infant and childhood mortality, periodic malnutrition and infectious diseases, and degenerative joint diseases (Angel et al. 1987; Rankin-Hill 1997). Similarly, the rural Cedar Grove Cemetery in southwest Arkansas provides stark evidence that the health of African Americans did not improve during the postemancipation period. Cortical bone analysis of a sample of fifteen females and fourteen males indicates a population that was under extraordinary disease and nutritional stress (Martin, Magennis, and Rose 1987).

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Anthropology, Biological; Archaeology; Burial Grounds; Immigrants to North America; Slave Lives, Archaeology of; Slavery Industry


Angel, J. Lawrence, Jennifer Olsen Kelley, Michael Parrington, and Stephanie Pinter. 1987. Life Stresses of the Free Black Community as Represented by the First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, 18231841. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87 (2): 213229.

Blakey, Michael L. 2001. Bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas: Its Origins and Scope. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 387422.

Epperson, Terrence W. 1999. The Contested Commons: Archaeologies of Race, Repression, and Resistance in New York City. In Historical Archaeologies of Capitalism, eds. M. P. Leone and P. B. Potter, Jr., 320. New York: Plenum.

General Services Administration. 2006. African Burial Ground Final Reports (Includes Archaeology, History, and Skeletal Biology), October 13, 2006. http://www.africanburialground.gov/ABG_FinalReports.htm

Handler, Jerome S. 1997. An African-Type Healer/Diviner and His Grave Goods: A Burial from a Plantation Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 1 (2): 91130.

Handler, Jerome S., and Frederick W. Lange. 1978. Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Handler, Jerome S., and Frederick W. Lange. 2006. On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains. African Diaspora Archaeology Network Newsletter, June 2006. http://www.diaspora.uiuc.edu/news0606/news0606.html

LaRoche, Cheryl L., and Michael L. Blakey. 1997. Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground. Historical Archaeology 31: 84106.

Martin, Debra L., Ann L. Magennis, and Jerome C. Rose. 1987. Cortical Bone Maintenance in an Historic Afro-American Cemetery Sample from Cedar Grove, Arkansas. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 74 (2): 255264.

Owsley, Douglas W., Charles E. Orser, Jr., Robert W. Mann, Peer H. Moore-Jansen, and Robert L. Montgomery. 1987. Demography and Pathology of an Urban Slave Plantation from New Orleans. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87 (2): 185197.

Rankin-Hill, Lesley M. 1997. A Biohistory of 19th-Century Afro-Americans: The Burial Remains of a Philadelphia Cemetery. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Rathbun, Ted A., and J. D. Scurry. 1991. Status and Health in Colonial South Carolina: Belleview Plantation, 17381756. In What Mean These Bones? Studies in Southeastern Bioarchaeology, ed. M. L. Powell, P. S. Bridges, and A. M. Mires, 148164. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Terrence W. Epperson