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U.Va. Hired Expert To Excavate Area

Archaeologist Discovers Evidence Of Grave At Emmet Street Parking Garage Site

June 15, 2002-- On Friday, archaeologist Benjamin Ford, who the University of Virginia hired to excavate a suspected 19th-century grave shaft on the site of a planned U.Va. parking garage, unearthed what he believes are the remnants of a coffin.

One thin layer at a time, Ford and two colleagues performed a detailed, day-long excavation, shaving the soil with mason's trowels and carefully sifting through the hard red clay for artifacts. Six hours into their work, they found the first nail, which was followed by four more, and finally part of a coffin handle with wood fragments attached.

University officials, who announced the findings Friday evening, will decide what steps to take after receiving Ford's final report, due to be completed within the next two weeks, and consulting with the state's Department of Historic Resources.

Ford, the principal in Rivanna Archaeological Consulting, was hired to begin exploration of the site as part of pre-construction procedures. On June 5, he found one hand-cut nail attached to wood fragments that suggested the possibility of a casket. The shape of the site — what he called a typical grave shaft — further indicated that possibility.

In his preliminary report written Friday evening, Ford wrote:

"… A total of five nails and nail fragments were recovered from the grave shaft unit. Three of these nails are machine cut, suggesting a 19th-century date of manufacture and use. … At least three of the nails recovered appear to have small wood fragments adhered to them, most likely through oxidation. Another significant artifact recovered from the grave shaft unit is what appears to be a coffin handle. This is a U-shaped piece of iron rod that also appears to have small fragments of wood oxidized onto it where it would have been attached to a coffin.

"No recognizable human remains were recovered from the archaeological investigations. Despite this, it is possible that some human remains, if preserved, may still be in the grave shaft."

The chances of finding human remains were slight, but not impossible, he said, due to the density and high acidity of Albemarle clay. "This kind of earth does not preserve things well," Ford said.

Ford noted that the addition of the coffin handle "was strong evidence for the presence of a human burial present within the grave shaft." He also said that it was the standard on which DHR makes its recommendations. "If a coffin is found, then DHR presumes that the grave contained a human burial."

Leonard W. Sandridge, U.Va. vice president and chief operating officer, said that the University will work through the proper channels in assessing all options. "We plan to review Mr. Ford’s report and work closely with the state Department of Historic Resources in deciding the appropriate next steps."

DHR regulations and state law provide that if human remains are found, they can be removed and reinterred under certain circumstances.

While a section of the property was designated as a cemetery in an 1895 deed, a 1954 deed later stated that the parcel had never been used for burial purposes. The University, which purchased the 7.2-acre site in 1983, chose to excavate the site as a precaution.

The grave shaft is located at the back of the property, along the north edge of the garage’s proposed footprint, close to the railroad tracks. Construction of the 1,200-car garage along the railroad tracks near Ivy Road and Emmet Street has been scheduled to begin in late July.

Contact: Carol Wood, (434) 924-6189

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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