Exhumations begin at First Baptist Church site – Daily Press
Descendants, archaeologists and researchers gathered Monday for the long-awaited start of burial excavations at the original site of the First Baptist Church.
The First Baptist Church descendant community voted unanimously in March to start digging three burial shafts to find out the race, age, gender and anything else related to those buried at the site. Since archaeologists began digging in September 2020, the church’s original foundation, a structure dating back to 1865 and 41 graves have been identified.
Members of several congregations descended from the original inhabitants of Williamsburg gathered to witness the opening of the graves. The ancestral blessing ceremony that took place before work began included a mix of prayer and song – a solemn and moving moment, said Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation. The group has been working since 2018 to preserve the church, its history and its 18th century artifacts.
“My heart is full. It was a moving tribute this morning. The day was all about descendants,” Harshaw said. “We wanted the descendants to have the opportunity to express what their ancestors might think or say.”
The 41 burial sites, which are rectangular holes about two feet wide and five feet deep, were identified primarily because of their surface appearance, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. One of the graves chosen was marked with an upside-down wine bottle, making it the only marked grave identified so far.
The process will take about two months. This will include confirming the presence of human remains, determining how long they have been there and assessing whether conditions allow for further testing. If conditions permit, osteological and DNA tests will be performed on the remains.
DNA testing will determine the person’s eye color, skin tone, propensity for certain diseases or conditions, genetic ancestry, and biological ties.
Bone analysis can fill in some of the gaps in DNA testing by examining the bones – age at death, stature, injuries, disease, physical stress, quality of life, and place of origin.
The DNA test will require two samples from each subject and the bone sample for this test. The bones will then be fully excavated and transferred to the Institute of Historical Biology on the William & Mary campus for cleaning and analysis. All artifacts found in the graves would be cleaned and cataloged in Colonial Williamsburg’s Archaeological Library.
Bone and DNA analyzes will take six months to a year. Once testing is complete, all remains and artifacts will be reinterred in the original site. Then finally, hopefully, the descendants will have their answers.
“Well, that must be heartening for the descendant community because if you think about it, these people sat there for over 66 years under a parking lot at first, unrecognized,” Harshaw said. “If you stand still in the moment and think about what this means for the descendant community and their involvement in this process, it really is an example for the nation to follow in what we call community archaeology.”
The tests will allow researchers to link those buried to the First Baptist Church and possibly help descendants find the final burial site of their ancestors.
“Every step of this process has been descendant-driven. … It was not a decision for [Colonial Williamsburg]. It was not a decision for Let Freedom Ring. It was not a decision for the church,” Harshaw said. “It’s the downward community that will determine what happens on this site, with this site, how it’s interpreted because it’s the right thing to do.”
Madison Peek, [email protected]