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Additional Graveshafts Found At Foster Family Site

August 4, 2005 -- Continued archaeological investigation of University of Virginia land previously owned in the 19th century by a free black family has revealed the location of 18 more grave shafts, bringing the total number of grave shafts discovered since 1993 to 32. 

In May, the University engaged Rivanna Archaeological Services, LLC to conduct limited field investigations at the site near the intersection of Jefferson Park Avenue and Venable Lane, which in 1993 was discovered to hold 12 grave shafts. In June, U.Va. officials announced the discovery of two additional graves and approved broader investigations by Rivanna Archaeology; this further work has since identified 18 more previously undocumented burials, mostly to the immediate north and west of the 14 known graves.

Archaeological excavations at the site typically extend to a depth of approximately 1 to 2 feet below existing grade, and are removing only surface soils across the area in an effort to identify the locations of burials, which are not marked in any way on the surface. Once surface soils have been removed, the back-filled grave shafts appear as rectangular areas of disturbed soil detectable against an otherwise undisturbed background of red clay subsoil or soft bedrock, said Steve Thompson, a principal investigator with Rivanna Archaeology. U.Va. has no plans to dig deeper and exhume the graves or coffins, officials emphasized.

 The first 12 graves were discovered in 1993 during an expansion of a nearby parking lot. The University commissioned the additional investigations this summer in preparation for the South Lawn Project, a major initiative to build additional classroom space north and south of Jefferson Park Avenue. The project likely will include an open, park-like element memorializing the site, and University officials have sought more documentation related to its previous residents to inform U.Va. planning efforts, said Mary Hughes, the University’s landscape architect.

Before the most recent discoveries, the archaeologists theorized that the cemetery held the remains of Catherine “Kitty” Foster, a free African-American woman who purchased the land in 1833, and her descendants. Some members of the Foster family likely served the University community as seamstresses and laundresses before they sold the land in 1906.

The new discoveries, however, complicate somewhat this earlier interpretation.  Most of the newly identified graves are adjacent to the original cluster of 12 burials identified in 1993. However, seven additional graves have been discovered in another grouping that is located approximately 15 feet away from the larger, main group of burials. While Catherine Foster and many of her descendants likely were buried in the cemetery, both the total number of burials thus far documented at the site and the clustering of graves into at least two distinct groups suggests that the graveyard may well have been used by more than one family group.       

The second cluster could represent an extended branch of the Foster family, Thompson suggested. Another possibility is that the Foster cemetery was expanded to include members of a 19th century African-American community, dubbed “Canada,” that developed east and west of the Foster property in the decades following the Civil War. It is also possible that some of the graves predate the Foster family’s occupation of the site, however no clear evidence has been discovered to support this hypothesis.

“There’s no way of knowing without more detailed information concerning the dates of individual burials,” Thompson said.

Corey D.B. Walker, an assistant professor of religious studies who is a member of the archaeological committee for the South Lawn Project, has studied African-American burial practices. He theorizes that the cemetery is more than a Foster family plot, citing the existence of other family “cluster” burials in similar cemeteries.

“We see that pattern in other late-19th century cemeteries,” he said. “They can’t all be from one household. We have to think along the lines of a community burial ground — a Canada cemetery.”

It is not unusual to “lose” a cemetery, Walker said. The graves were unmarked, and the Foster family appears to have left the area after selling its land in 1906.

“There are numerous cemeteries that just slip through the cracks and go unnoticed,” especially if no one maintains them, he said. As an example, he cited an African-American cemetery in New York that contained hundreds of graves, some dating to the early 1800s, that was rediscovered in the 1990s.

The next step in the investigation is to carefully remove a small, mid-20th century dwelling at 400 Venable Lane and probe the soil beneath it, Hughes said. The original cluster of grave shafts were found immediately adjacent to the structure.

Contact: Dan Heuchert, (434) 924-7676

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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