Project Spotlight: Thunderbird Archeology Excavates Historic D.C. Cemetery

WSSI archeologists excavating and recording burials in a deep trench box excavation on the site.

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.

Columbian Harmony Cemetery, April 1960 [cellulose acetate photonegative]. Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers). Archives Center – NMAH.

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.


  • Boyd Sipe

    Gainesville, VA

  • John Mullen

    Gainesville, VA