Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 18


Excavation of a Mid-Nineteenth Century Cemetery at the Nashville Zoo

Larry McKee and Hannah Guidry
TRC Environmental Corporation, Nashville

Graves and cemeteries have been a focus of archaeological research since the early origins of the profession. Burials usually yield rich information on human culture and biology, and the public is also fascinated with what the dead can tell us about the past. In recent decades archaeologists have largely ceased research-oriented burial excavations, largely in response to the common disapproval of such work by descendent communities. But archaeological excavation of burials does continue across the country, mostly linked to efforts to avoid obliteration of such sites during development projects.

The firm we work for, TRC Environmental Corporation (“TRC”), has participated in the removal and relocation of over 700 graves in Tennessee since 2000. These sites range from a forgotten churchyard cemetery near Chattanooga to a large pre-contact Indian burial ground in Alabama. As development projects in rural areas continue to proliferate, we expect this to remain an important part of our business.

One recent TRC burial removal project took place in the late winter of this year at the Nashville Zoo. The cemetery was located adjacent to the current entrance area to the zoo, where planned expansion offered no way to avoid disturbance to the graves.

Map of the cemetery at Grassmere

The Nashville Zoo occupies land that was once part of Grassmere plantation, and the planter family mansion and other elements of the central core of the operation are preserved and open to zoo visitors. The last members of the planter family to occupy the property decided to pass its ownership to the city of Nashville, and transfer to the city took place in the 1980’s.

The cemetery for the planter family members is in the garden behind the plantation mansion. Otherwise, there was no documentary record, oral tradition, or grave markers indicating the presence of another cemetery on the property. The graves near the zoo entrance plaza first came to light unexpectedly in the late 1980’s during excavations by Vanderbilt University focused on a pre-contact Indian occupation of the area. The work was done in connection with the development of the Grassmere Wildlife Park, the short-lived precursor to the current Nashville Zoo. The excavation ceased in one area when a skull was uncovered in a rectangular feature, obviously a historic grave shaft. The team of Vanderbilt researchers concluded that this was probably the burial ground for the community of enslaved African-Americans who worked and lived on the plantation before emancipation.

Top exposure of grave shafts.

TRC was able to use the results of the Vanderbilt excavation in pinpointing the location of the graves and in guiding expectations about what would be found during the 2014 work. The first step in the removal of the cemetery at the zoo was to use a trackhoe to strip the soil overburden covering the graves. The lack of markers of any kind over the burials made for a challenge in locating the graves, but by the second day of work at the site obvious grave shafts in the form of rectangular soil features steadily came to light.

The excavation revealed all twenty burials found at the cemetery were in wooden coffins, with mostly very poor preservation. Seventeen of the coffins were hexagonal in shape and three were of indeterminate shape. Only one of the coffins had external decorative hardware, with two metal swing handles and a single hinge probably associated with a viewing cover. Evidence from coffin and clothing remains suggests that the graves in the cemetery date to the decades around the mid-nineteenth century.

Excavation of the cemetery.

In general, the cemetery conforms to expected patterns for a mid-nineteenth century burial ground in the rural south. The graves are generally arranged in two irregular rows, with some outliers, and with groupings of adults, sub-adults, children and infant burials likely indicating direct familial relationships. All burials except one were placed with heads to the west, in keeping with Christian beliefs regarding the dead rising up on Judgment Day to face the rising sun. Beyond buttons and other clothing items, no additional artifacts or grave goods were recovered from the graves. Two of the infant burials had dozens of glass seed beads, mostly turquoise and white in color, scattered around the head and neck area. We interpret these as decorations on the upper yoke of gowns used as burial clothing. A single burial included remnants of footwear.

Beads recovered from an infant burial, probably decorating a gown.

Analysis of the age and sex of the remains is still preliminary, but it appears that fully half of the burials were of infants, children, and “subadult” individuals. Grim as it is, this is generally in keeping with mortality expectations for the entire population, black and white, in the American South in the 19th century. In other words, anyone born at the time had only about a fifty-fifty chance of reaching adulthood. This statistic is surely one of the starkest social differences between our time and theirs.

Through some lucky circumstances, the skeletal remains from the zoo cemetery received some thorough analysis after the excavation. A previous post on this blog by Professor Shannon Hodge of MTSU discusses the process and initial findings of this work. dr. Hodge and her students confirmed through skeletal analysis that these individuals had clear African genetic heritage, strong evidence that this was the burial ground used by some or all of Grassmere’s community of enslaved African Americans.

On June 12, 2014, TRC staff supervised the reburial of all the recovered remains in the historic farm area of the zoo, just north of the planter family cemetery. Signage and tour information will commemorate the fact that those buried here were held as slaves at Grassmere. The decision to return all these individuals to rest within a stone’s throw of those who claimed ownership of them reflects well on the Nashville Zoo’s commitment to present the complex legacy of the property to the visiting public.

Note: A summary of Tennessee laws regarding the treatment and removal of historic graves can be found via the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.