30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 11

Who was Buried at Grassmere Plantation?

Shannon Chappell Hodge, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University

Do you ever watch crime-scene dramas on TV, like “Bones”, “NCIS”, or the latest permutation of “CSI”? If so, you’ll know that in the TV world, skeletal specialists often get middle-of-the-night phone calls, or have their dinners interrupted by the sudden buzzing of a cell phone which signals that the plot just got a lot more interesting.

Thank goodness, that never happens to me. But every once in a while, I get a really interesting e-mail, which opens up a lot of opportunities for me to serve the people of Tennessee, both living and the long-departed. I’m a bioarchaeologist, which is a specialization within archaeology that examines human skeletal remains within their cultural context. That means, I look at human skeletons from archaeological sites, and try to use what I find out from the skeletons to better understand their culture.

Figure 1: Plan view of Nashville Zoo Cemetery. Image courtesy TRC Environmental.

Figure 1: Plan view of Nashville Zoo Cemetery. Image courtesy TRC Environmental.

By studying the skeleton, we can figure out how old the person was when they died, their sex, any health problems they had in life, malnutrition, trauma, and simple wear and tear on the bones and teeth. We can study their bone chemistry and figure out what they ate or drank, and even where they lived. We can learn something about their life experiences as individuals, which can lead to a better understanding of the broader society they lived in.

You have probably filled out some kind of standardized form that asked you what your “race” was. While archaeologists avoid the cultural concept of race, bioarchaeologists do recognize the notion of genetic ancestry. Ancestry is the biological concept that if your ancestors and my ancestors came from the same general part of the world, we’re going to be genetically more similar to one another than if our ancestors came from different parts of the world. And if we’re genetically more similar, we’re going to share more biological and genetic traits, including things like skin color, certain genetic health conditions, and most importantly to bioarchaeology, certain small traits of the skeleton.

Which brings us back to that interesting, plot-turning e-mail. This past spring, I got an e-mail from Larry McKee, Archaeology Program Manager with TRC Environmental in Nashville. TRC was working with the Nashville Zoo to exhume human remains from a small 19th century cemetery on the former Grassmere Plantation that the Zoo is built on. We’ll read more from Larry about the project on this blog later in the month, but his question to me was if I could help take some DNA samples to figure out if the people buried in the graves were of European, African, or Native American descent, since there were no historic records to indicate who was buried there. Larry wanted to be sure and honor the people appropriately when they were reburied, and to help the Zoo with their historical interpretation of the site.

My response was, “Sure, I can help you with the DNA, but why don’t I also look at their skeletal remains and see what else I can find out”? DNA can often be destroyed by the burial environment of the bones, and I wanted to be sure we had some information to go on, in case the DNA analyses came back inconclusive. TRC and the Zoo gladly agreed, and the remains were delivered to the lab at Middle Tennessee State University in May of this year. With a lot of dedicated help from my students, we cleaned the dirt from the remains and were able to assess the age and sex of nine individuals. We also got great clues as to their ancestry, and some ideas about what their lives may have been like.

In general, these folks seem to have been relatively well nourished and healthy. Although all nine adults were under age 50 when they died, six had arthritis of the knee and/or spine, suggesting demanding workloads. One of the men had a minor foot infection which might have developed from a blister or an insect bite, but fortunately for him it was well healed and was not the cause of his death. Another man had a broken hip socket and would have walked with a limp, and one woman had compression fractures of the vertebrae in her lower spine. Both of these injuries were probably the result of accidental falls and were healed by the time of death, which may give an indication of access to medical care and their freedom to rest and recuperate.

The youngest of the adults was an exceptionally tall and robust young man in his late teens or early twenties. He had a slipped capital femoral epiphysis – meaning that the “ball” part of the ball-and-socket joint that makes up the hip was damaged before he finished growing. In modern times, this condition is most commonly found in African-American teenagers, particularly boys, and especially ones who are tall and heavy. In this case, it might have also resulted from heavy workloads and stress on the hip joint at too young an age. This young man also had juvenile gout of his right big toe, a possible sign of sickle cell anemia, which occurs more frequently in people of African descent.

So, what did the DNA have to say? We tested three individuals, and found that one person was clearly of African descent, another belonged to a genetic group including Europeans, North Africans, and Middle Eastern populations, and the third was inconclusive. When we looked at the skeletal evidence for ancestry, the picture was clearer. Seven adults had traits of the skull that suggest African ancestry, including the individual with inconclusive DNA. The remaining 2 adults were too poorly preserved to estimate their ancestry.

Judging from the artifacts in the graves, Larry and his crew discovered that this cemetery was in use during the mid-19th century, before Emancipation in 1865, and after the ban against importation of slaves to the U.S. took effect in 1808. Therefore, this cemetery almost certainly represents a community of enslaved African-Americans in the last decades of American slavery.

It has been my privilege to work with this small community of Tennessee’s founders, those who literally built our state from the ground up. From a forgotten graveyard, archaeology can help give voices to those who were voiceless in life, and give witness to their hardship and sacrifice. It is this type of opportunity to help enrich the present with knowledge of the past that keeps me looking forward to that next interesting e-mail and the next plot twist in Tennessee’s rich story.