Mary Louise Webb of the Charles County African American Heritage Society exclaims over the reconstruction of a skull found in a slave graveyard at Serenity Farm in Benedict.
It’s a haunting image, the face of an unknown man, reconstructed from his crumbling bones.
His story starts more than 200 years ago, when accurate clocks were cutting-edge.
He lay forgotten in a grave in Benedict, then his story picks back up in the 21st century, when all the tools of modern science were employed to find out what we can about the man and the other people who were buried near him in a graveyard discovered a couple of years ago in a farmyard.
Julie Schablitsky is the archaeologist who supervised work on the site. She holds a doctoral degree and came to work at the Cultural Resources Section of the Maryland State Highway Administration seven years ago after years in Oregon, dealing with American Indian tribes. Her task was to take a survey of the sites near Route 231 for an SHA outreach program focusing on a British encampment used during the War of 1812 and investigating nearby properties as well.
Schablitsky said Franklin Robinson Jr., one of the owners of Serenity Farm where the graveyard was discovered, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution and the chairman of the Charles County Historic Preservation Commission, showed her some of the artifacts that had turned up on the farm throughout the years. The property is crowded with historic sites.
“And he said, ‘Oh, and also, we have a skull,’” Schablitsky said. “I didn’t want to see it. I just knew it was Native American.” She said artifacts out of their historical context couldn’t add much to the historical record, and Native American sites are considered sacred and therefor not subjects for excavation.
The skull was found several years ago when a drainage project unearthed it.
“In the derecho storm [in 2012] a huge oak tree fell, and destroyed a trailer” near the site where the skull was found Robinson said.
The serendipitous discovery nearly got overshadowed by tragedy, as the woman living in the trailer was in the bathroom when the tree fell. The trunk fell across her bed.
Schablitsky was asked to look at the hole left by the tree’s root ball, and found nothing, but decided to do some more work to see if there was an unmarked cemetery.
She got a quick analysis of the skull from a colleague, Douglas Owsley, a forensic scientist at the Smithsonian, and he said there was a strong possibility that the skull was from an African-American.
“I said, ‘OK, we’ve got a cemetery here,’” Schablitsky said.
Because of the nature of slavery, little is known of the lives of the slaves. They were not allowed to read and write and were more or less a part of the landscape to most whites, not a subject for a lot of time and analysis. How they lived, exactly what they wore, what they ate, many of the details of their daily lives are hazy, lost in the past.
Schablitsky said a chance to excavate a cemetery full of African-American slaves had the potential to add a great deal to what we know about them.
First, the team used ground penetrating radar, with no results. But they persevered.
There were definitely graves there, 23 of them it turned out by the end of the survey.
Lidar, a form of radar using laser beams, was used to make 3D images of the burials and the site.
Schablitsky was ready to begin work, but first she had to take care of a moral duty.
“Those people [in the graves] can’t speak for themselves,” Schablitsky said. She said she is conscious of the need to be sensitive to her subjects as people, to treat them with respect, even though all that’s left of them is bones.
She consulted a few local historians and decided to talk the matter over with the Charles County African American Heritage Society.
She spoke with Mary Louise Webb, one of the officers in the society and approaching 90 years old.
“Spiritually, I was very impressed,” Webb said of a service after the bones were excavated and studied, officiated by the Rev. Nancy James, an Episcopal priest and pastor of Trinity Parish, which includes Oldfields Church, just a mile or two from the grave sites. Webb was happy to give Schablitsky her blessing to do the excavation, but she did want a religious ceremony to reinter the bones when the study was done. “We all said the Lords Prayer, and I felt we were all together.”
One of the first things analysis of the graves yielded was that the burials were probably Christian. The custom of the time was for Christians to bury their dead facing the east, a symbolic readiness for the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Jesus. Some African societies also use the grave configuration.
Schablitsky said the skull that was found came from the only grave that was not aligned that way.
“For some reason, they did not want him to rest in peace,” she said at the site one day. She paused and looked around. “And he didn’t. We really wouldn’t have known about this site if it hadn’t been for him, his skull, appearing like that.”
The data quickly piled up as more analysis was done.
Dana Kollman, a biological archaeologist, handled the examination of the bones for facts that can be determined by the physical characteristics of the skeletons.
“Based upon the skeletons, we were able to determine the ancestry — the race. We determined their chronological ages, their general health or lack thereof. We looked at their occupations based on their workload. Their teeth told us things about their diet,” she said.
The scientists found that the people buried there were ages from infants to more than 50 years old, “with the majority ranging in their early 30s,” Kollman said.
They noticed thick bone ends and joints, “incredibly robust,” Kollman said, indicating many years of hard work. The legacy of physical work also was present in evidence of osteoarthritis, where the work was so hard it eroded the cartilage from their joints.
Other evidence of their lifestyle also became clear.
Kollman said their teeth showed a lot of wear, consistent with a “very abrasive” diet, indicating poorer quality food. A fish scale from a perch or striped bass found in one grave was the only direct indication of their diet.
Several of the burials suffered from serious dental problems, one of them with many cavities and abscesses, so severe that the infections might actually have killed the man.
Some suffered from malnutrition, including one man whose legs were permanently disfigured with rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, and a child around 5 or 6 years old whose tooth enamel had suffered a “severe” deformity from malnutrition.
Schablitsky said this particular burial touched her heart because she has a son about the same age, and that impressed on her with even more emotional force that these had been people, just like us.
“They loved. They were loved. They lived their lives and ended up here. Now it’s our job to find out what we can about them but also to treat them with dignity and respect,” Schablitsky said.
Some of the graves had contained infants, and nothing at all was left of them. At the reinterment ceremony, they buried the soil that had come from the graves, nothing left of them but the nails that held the coffins together to show that they had ever existed.
Along with the skeletons, there were a few artifacts found in the graves, most commonly nails. The scientists were able to date the site from around 1783 to around 1810 based mostly on the evidence of the coffin nails. Two main types were found, wrought iron nails, handmade by a blacksmith, and also nails cut from sheets of metal, with a head attached by a blacksmith. Historians can date the period of use of each type pretty exactly, so the period of use of the cemetery is accurate.
Other items found in the graves include shroud pins of a copper alloy, used to hold the burial garment together. Four bricks were found in the grave that also contained the fish scale, used to make it easier to get ropes used to lower the coffin out of the grave afterwards, then left behind.
There were a total of five buttons found — and fragments of a sixth — in two graves. One contained one button, made of wood with a copper alloy overlay on the front. One grave contained four buttons and fragments, which indicated a fifth, which was intriguing to Schablitsky.
She told a gathering at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata campus in April, where she and a forensic artist, Evelyn Grant unveiled an image Grant made based on the skull found in the grave, that the five buttons probably meant a waistcoat, indicating a social status above that of farm laborers. She said she concluded that the man had been a slave who worked in the plantation house. The group decided to use this man’s skull to do the forensic re-construction because it was the most intact of the skulls that were excavated.
Grant, who is a detective first class with the Baltimore County Police Department, and usually makes images from bones found but not identified, to help police find out who the person was, explained the process she uses.
She takes an X-ray of the skull to get more detail of the underlying structure and then places pins in strategic positions, marking the depth at which the flesh would have coated the skull based on race, age and nutrition details.
This skull was not solid enough to make a cast, which the artist could coat in clay at the appropriate depths to get a 3-D sculpture to refine, so Grant worked with the data from the pins to create a digital image.
The unveiling was emotional, with several members of the African American Heritage Society in attendance. The image is startlingly lifelike, a handsome man in his mid 20s, a strong jaw and fine features.
Webb said he “looks just like my grandson” and produced a photo to compare. The resemblance was striking, especially around the eyes.
Schablitsky said she has worked on the remains of many people, but “this is the first time one of them looked back at me.”
Schablitsky said DNA recovered from the bones is too old to identify any descendants of the people buried there, but DNA could indicate if some of them have white or Native American ancestry.
Analysis of isotopes — chemical signatures that stay in the bones — is also underway and could indicate if any of them were born somewhere else — even Africa — and thus provide clues about the trade in slaves during the period.
Schablitsky has scheduled a private dedication of the site, with gravestones to indicate each grave shaft and interpretive signs giving the data on each one.
The site will be open by request, and Robinson said he hopes eventually to be able to offer school and church group tours.
Baltimore County forensic artist helps give a face to African slave history
Baltimore County Detective Evelyn Grant, a forensic artist,… (Photo courtesy Evelyn Grant…)
May 30, 2014|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun
BENEDICT — — Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky has stared at many relics unearthed from Maryland's landscape.
Rarely, she says, has one stared back.
But that happened Friday at a sprawling farm in rural Charles County that holds the graves of 23 people who are believed to have been slaves who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The likeness of one man was digitally re-created by a Baltimore County forensic artist.
"I cried, because I'm not used to them looking back at me," said Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the State Highway Administration, the lead agency in a project to research the graves.
Baltimore County Police Detective Evelyn Grant, a forensic artist who ordinarily sketches criminals and makes clay busts of victims, created the facial image of the man, believed to have been in his mid-20s, whose remains were unearthed from a centuries-old burial ground next to a hay barn.
"Normally I do this with victims that can't be identified," said Grant, a 12-year veteran. "This one just has a different purpose. It's historical, not criminal."
From examining a skull, a waistcoat and other items, Grant crafted a facial image and full-body sketch of the man, likely a farm or house worker who has come to be known as "Lazarus."
Being able to see the man "was a very moving and powerful experience," Schablitsky said. "I'm used to seeing people of the past [through] the trash that they scattered, the things they lose, the skeleton bones they leave behind."
Veronica Coates, co-founder of the of the African American Heritage Society of Charles County, said it was difficult to look the man in the eye: "It was a connection with the soul.
"It was almost an apology of being so long in finding him," Coates said. "I think of how many more there are in that state."
Grant's drawings were displayed at Serenity Farm as SHA officials teamed with the heritage society, farm owners and other officials Friday to rededicate 13 of the 23 graves unearthed for examination.
The burial ground, which is believed to have been created between 1780 and 1810, became the backdrop of an impromptu liturgical ceremony led by farm co-owner Franklin Robinson Jr., complete with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of "Amazing Grace."
Grant, one of only about three dozen certified forensic artists in the world, became involved with the Serenity Farm project at the request of a friend who was working there as a forensic anthropologist. In Baltimore County, Grant works primarily in internal affairs, but she's been called on to help with forensic cases throughout Maryland.
"We're trying to get their story out there, and telling the story of what people did back then versus now," Grant said. "I couldn't believe that I was part of it.
"I'm usually the end result; forensic artists come in at the very end, after the DNA has been extracted and the fingerprints have been taken and the crime scene has been worked on. So when they called me and told me about what they had discovered, I was thrilled that I would be at the very beginning of the investigation, helping out from point one."
Working on a centuries-old skull wasn't different from what she does for today's forensics, Grant said. It's all about analyzing "markers" — points that represent muscle, tissue, tendons and skin, "from the very basic part of the bone to the top surface of what your hand can touch."
Her primary concern was whether the skull would crumble once exhumed.
To help keep it intact, archaeologists removed a block of earth that encapsulated the skull.
But once she was in the lab, she said, "as I was taking measurements, the dirt was falling apart and the skull was physically crumbling."
Based on a skull, Baltimore County Police forensic artist Evelyn Grant sketched the occupant of Burial 13, now called Lazarus.
At Serenity Farm in Benedict, you’ll find 100 acres devoted to Farming 4 Hunger (see this week’s feature story). It’s also a place for farm tours and events, hayrides and petting zoo, shearing sheep and tobacco barns.
Maryland’s history is rooted there, too.
The recently discovered Burial Ground at Serenity Farm unlocks secrets and pieces together from crumbling bones lives lost in the past.
Twenty years ago, a human skull and a long bone fragment were unearthed, only to be put aside with other artifacts found on the farm throughout the years.
The derecho of 2012 showed more.
The toppling of a large oak tree revealed a long-lost burial ground.
After that skull was identified as African American, Maryland State Highway chief archaeologist Julie Schablitsky got approval from the African American Heritage Society of Charles County — the blessing of Trinity Parish Reverend Nancy James — to excavate and study the bones.
“We scraped back some surface and five grave shafts popped up,” Schablitsky said.
“The adult remains — almost entire skeletons — helped us determine approximate age, ancestry and general health. The coffin nails gave us the time period — between 1790 and 1810,” she said.
The remains revealed men and women muscular from hard labor.
In total, 23 graves — and the remains of 13 individuals — were discovered. The infants, children, women and men buried at Serenity Farm were likely enslaved by the Smith Family.
The burials were probably Christian, the archaeologists concluded. Christians — like some West African cultures — bury their dead with their heads facing the west.
The most intact of the skulls was Burial 13. Five waistcoat buttons in that grave suggest social status above that of farm laborer, indicating someone who worked in the plantation house.
Excavating began in July 2013 and by September 2013, all the remains were re-interred in the exact spot they were found with a religious ceremony and granite markers.
“We studied them very quickly but efficiently,” said Schablisky. “It was very important to get them back into the ground along with the buttons, the nails and even the dirt that was dug up. It went back into the same holes.”
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