The Front End of the Brentwood Library Site Excavation

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 18

Mike C. Moore
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

People interested in archaeology generally focus on the end result of an excavation: What was found and what does it all mean? However, if you are a developer or landowner planning a construction project, and run into an archaeological issue, the first questions are more likely to be how much is this going to cost and how long will it take? Most folks have no idea what it’s like for an archaeologist to tell someone they have a real legal issue that is going to cost major bucks (as well as project time) to resolve. This post takes a peek at the beginning of the Brentwood Library project that first breathed life on the afternoon of July 29, 1997.

Little did I know when I answered that afternoon phone call that three things were about to happen. First, the next four months of my life would be tied up with a major archaeological excavation; second, our understanding of Middle Cumberland Mississippian settlement along the Little Harpeth River was going to change big time; and third, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology was going to ruin a number of people’s day.

Initial assessment by Division personnel of Brentwood Library construction site (John Broster and Manny Breitburg to left working on structure; Mike Moore and Suzanne Hoyal to right working on palisade bastion).

Initial assessment by Division personnel of Brentwood Library construction site (John Broster and Manny Breitburg to left working on structure; Mike Moore and Suzanne Hoyal to right working on palisade bastion).

On the other end of that phone call was the head librarian for the City of Brentwood, who sounded disturbed as she informed me that human burials had possibly been exposed during construction of the new Brentwood Library off Concord Road in northern Williamson County. Division staff (me included) responded to the call that same afternoon. Prior to leaving we checked the site files and found no previously recorded site for this location. Upon arrival at the construction zone we observed that a substantial amount of activity was underway. The library building footprint had already been cut into the base of a low ridge with a rock pad established.  In addition, grading of the proposed parking area and surrounding grounds had removed about four to six inches of soil that turned out to be deep enough to expose intact cultural resources but not destroy them. Immediately after stepping out of the truck I noticed the tell-tale sign of a “stone-box” grave with the capstones removed.

View of Division initial assessment of Brentwood Library construction zone from Knox Valley Drive, note library building rock pad to right of photo.

View of Division initial assessment of Brentwood Library construction zone from Knox Valley Drive, note library building rock pad to right of photo.

At that time we requested all activity cease until the proposed construction zone could be evaluated for additional graves and other cultural features. This sounds like a simple thing to ask when legal concerns are involved.  However, large construction projects have schedules, and deviations from schedules have real costs in terms of labor and machine hours. That the Division offered to conduct this assessment at no charge was appreciated by the City, but didn’t ease the sense of foreboding surrounding the project.

Over the next two days Division personnel defined more stone-box graves as well as non-mortuary features including palisade lines, structures, and refuse-filled pits. Our conclusion presented to City officials seemed like a horrible practical joke: “Your new library is being built on a late prehistoric Native American town. What would you like to do now?

The City of Brentwood determined that walking away from this tract of land was not a feasible option.  Since Tennessee state law does allow for human burials (ancient or modern) to be removed and reburied with a court order, the City decided to locate, remove, and rebury all graves that could not be avoided by the proposed library construction. In addition to costing the City quite a bit of money, this decision was costly through media publicity and a very upset Native American community who displayed their concern through print and television media, on-site protests, and respectful civil disobedience.

Prehistoric burials and non-mortuary features recorded during Brentwood Library site excavation, with building and parking lot overlay.

Prehistoric burials and non-mortuary features recorded during Brentwood Library site excavation, with building and parking lot overlay.

The Brentwood Library project truly represented the worst-case scenario for both the construction and archaeological communities as human graves and other significant archaeological resources were discovered after construction had begun. On a positive note, roughly 20 years later many developers now attempt to avoid this scenario by conducting archaeological assessments as part of their routine evaluation of potential project locations.

The results of the Brentwood Library excavation were published in our 2005 report titled The Brentwood Library Site: A Mississippian Town on the Little Harpeth River, Williamson County, Tennessee.  This report (revised in 2012) is available as a free pdf on the Division of Archaeology web site.


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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.