Jan. 7, 2022
As 19th century ancestral remains arrive at VCU, researchers aim to learn more about who they were
The remains were uncovered 28 years ago in an abandoned well on the MCV Campus. Researchers hope their efforts “help to bring some sense of closure to the community.”
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The 19th century human remains discovered in 1994 in an abandoned well on the MCV Campus were transferred on Thursday from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, where researchers will seek to understand more about who the people were and the cultural and historical context in which they lived.
The remains of at least 44 adults and nine children were uncovered 28 years ago during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, and are believed to be largely of African descent. The well’s contents are believed to have been discarded in the 1800s by medical staff.
The remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for study after their discovery, and were transferred to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in November 2019 while the East Marshall Street Well Project Implementation Committees worked on recommendations for a more permanent memorial.
At VCU, researchers will work to answer questions developed by the Family Representative Council related to biochemical and DNA analysis of the remains.
“Specifically these recommendations were related to implementing analyses that allow us to understand the regional genetic ancestry of the individuals; to identify the sex of children and younger or prepubertal adolescents whose sex cannot be determined by physical examination of the bones, to understand the health environments of the individuals and to allow the possibility of identifying connections between individuals whose remains were discovered with potential living descendants,” said Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior executive for special projects in the VCU Office of the President.
Additionally, Allison said, because the remains were comingled — meaning that the bones of multiple people were mixed together when taken from the construction site — the research will allow the East Marshall Street Well Project to put together bones belonging to a single individual. The research will also provide a better sense of the actual number of people whose remains were discovered.
Leading the research will be Joseph Jones, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at the College of William & Mary, who was chair of the Family Representative Council and is co-chair of the Research Implementation Committee; and Tal Simmons, Ph.D., a professor of forensic science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, who will coordinate the work at VCU in collaboration with Baneshwar Singh, Ph.D., an associate professor of forensic science at VCU. Additional faculty and undergraduate and graduate students from VCU and William & Mary also will be involved.
“It is a real honor to have the ancestral remains in my lab to pursue the research goals set by the FRC and to have the support of the community in meeting the FRC's objectives,” Simmons said. “We hope the results of the research will restore dignity to these individuals and will help to bring some sense of closure to the community by honoring the ancestors.”
Jones and Simmons, along with their students, conducted an inventory of the remains at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in 2019, documenting the contents of 17 boxes that held 636 major bone elements, not including numerous additional hand, foot, rib and vertebrae bones, as well as additional fragments. Both Jones and Simmons have extensive relevant background experience. Simmons has led projects to document and identify human remains in the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Jones conducted chemical analysis of the New York African Burial Ground individuals and is currently working on African American community-engaged projects involving human skeletal remains at Historic Jamestowne and at First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, one of the nation’s earliest black churches.
The goals of the research are aligned with the goals set by the Family Representative Council: assess how many individuals were present, assess the sex of the juvenile individuals and assess the geographic ancestry of the individuals, Simmons said.
A second phase of the project will involve sequencing the microbiome of the dental calculus (between the teeth) of each individual identified, allowing the researchers to be able to assess a bit about their health. In the project’s third phase, the researchers will seek to link the DNA profiles of individuals from the well to descendants living today.
Another project, led primarily by Jones and in collaboration with Christopher M. Stevenson, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies at VCU, and Joseph “Jody” Turner, Ph.D., director of instrumentation and service associate professor in VCU’s Department of Chemistry, will assess ancestral geographic origins by looking at isotopic signatures in teeth and any environmental stressors or pollutants in the environment that the individuals were exposed to during their lifetimes.
“Our goal is to link individuals to specific landscapes,” Jones said. “This would shed more light on the human dimensions of their stories before the well. For example, we may be able to identify persons who were native to this region versus those who were migrants, and to compare their lived experiences through skeletal markers of health, disease and labor.”
This new phase of the East Marshall Street Wall Project, Allison said, will help identify the areas from which these individuals originated and will inform work on understanding the cultural and historical contexts relevant to the individuals whose remains were unearthed.
“In some ways, these analyses will allow the development of a bio culturally-based biography of the individuals — where and how they lived,” he said.
“This deeper understanding will also inform the cultural burial practices that will be used as we move toward interment,” he added. “We will work with the FRC, Implementation Committees and community to put in place strategies to explore linkages to potential living descendants. This work is part of a broader pursuit of understanding the lives, the cultural and historical period and experiences relevant to the lives of these individuals as well as the legacies relevant to these individuals including the legacy of these individuals within contemporary health sciences.”
Last fall, VCU leaders and member of the East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council, planning committee and implementation committee unveiled four panels in the Kontos Medical Sciences Building that detail the story of the ancestral remains.
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