Volume 24, Number 9 ● August 2, 2016
Project Spotlight: Thunderbird Archeology Excavates Historic D.C. Cemetery
In advance of redevelopment of the ±0.52 acre Israel Senior Residences Housing Site, an affordable residential development for seniors, Thunderbird Archeology, a division of Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. (WSSI), was contracted to confirm the completeness of the 1960 mass disinterment project and remove any human remains that might still be present. The project site is located southeast of the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue NE and Washington Place NE in Washington, D.C.
The Columbian Harmony Cemetery was established in the mid-19th century to serve the District’s African American community and continued in use until 1960 when approximately 37,000 burials were exhumed and remains were re-interred in the National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland. However, despite affidavits and court records to the contrary, the burial removal process at Columbian Harmony Cemetery had not been completed during the 1960 undertaking; not all burials were exhumed and re-interred. Headstones and other cemetery monuments, entire coffins, coffin fragments and disarticulated remains were evidently left onsite in 1960 and all of these, as well as intact articulated burials, were discovered during Thunderbird Archeology’s excavations within the half-acre portion of the cemetery slated for redevelopment.
The soil overburden was removed by machine to the top of the coffin/burial feature surface, then hand-scraped using flat shovels and trowels in order to define exposed features. Fill overlying the grave features varied in depth from approximately one to three feet along the western site boundary to approximately 15 feet near the eastern project boundary. A total of 196 coffin/burial features were identified within the footprint of the planned building during the 2014 investigations. All identified burials were removed under the authority of a D.C. district court order and Department of Public Health permit.
The portion of the cemetery exposed within the building footprint was roughly arranged in 19 rows. The locations of only a few interments were apparent in the rows along the western edge, but the remainder of the cemetery was less visibly disturbed and contained upwards of 17 interment features in each row. All burials were oriented east-west.
Additional work was required in the southern portion of the site in association with the installation of a proposed storm drain system and the removal of the existing storm drain piping, which was within the proposed building footprint based on DC Water plans. Deep fills in this area necessitated excavation within trench boxes. A total of 35 burial features were identified during the Intensive Level Investigations within the limits of disturbance of the proposed storm water system at the site. One additional grave was discovered and disinterred during the removal of the existing storm drain piping.
Throughout the site, outlines of the coffins were visible as soil discolorations or by concentrations of wood fragments or the presence of coffin hardware. The majority of the coffins were rectangular, wooden boxes; roughly 10% were hexagonal; and the shape in approximately 10% could not be determined. Preservation of the wood coffins varied from poor (i.e. wood stains with fragments) to excellent (i.e. complete planks that could be removed from the feature).
Intact burials were defined as those containing human remains, and were classified as either Articulated (i.e., at least two contiguous bones remained in situ) or Disarticulated (i.e., skeletal remains were present, but not in situ). If no human remains were found within a burial feature, then it was assumed that the individual had been completely disinterred from the cemetery in 1960. One hundred and fifty-three (153) intact coffin/grave features contained human remains; of this total, 73 were articulated and 80 were disarticulated. Preservation of remains ranged generally from poor to minimal. Thirty-eight coffin features were considered completely disinterred as they did not contain human remains.
The sponsor and co-developers of the project worked with Thunderbird Archeology and National Harmony Memorial Park to re-inter the remains. A re-interment service was conducted on November 18, 2015; the records provided to National Harmony identify the remains by their original location. The new burial site is adjacent to the originally relocated remains from the 1960 effort. Six plaques mark the locations of the re-interred remains.