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Slave Cemetery Season One Summary

The first season of the Slave Cemetery project began in May 2014. Mount Vernon archaeologists, students, interns, and volunteers excavated 66 5x5 ft. test units, covering an area of 1,650 square feet, and recorded a total of 20 burial features. Each grave shaft was thoroughly documented and no remains were disturbed.

The 20 burial features discovered could be identified by their shape, size and orientation. The oval-shaped burials are filled with a distinct yellowish-orange clayey soil and are each generally oriented east-west. The burial features stand out from the surrounding pale, light-brown silty clay soil, which makes them easy to identify (FIGURE 1, FIGURE 2).

FIGURE 1: Northern excavation block of 2014 project area. Note row of burials running from top right to bottom left of image; facing northwest.

FIGURE 2: Southern block of 2014 project area, containing eight burials; facing northeast.

Based on the lengths and widths of each grave shaft, 18 burials likely contain an adult interment, while the remaining 2 grave shafts likely contain a child burial (FIGURE 3, FIGURE 4).

FIGURE 4: Child-sized burial, 809C. Facing West.

FIGURE 3: Grave shaft 702C. Facing West.

As burial features were exposed, archaeologists began to get a better idea of the cemetery’s layout. A single row of burials runs north to south down the central ridgeline. At one point, a second row of graves appears to have inadvertently cut the first, suggesting that when the second grouping of burials were originally dug, all signs and memories of the previous interments had been lost (FIGURE 5).

FIGURE 5: Grave shaft overlying two earlier burials; facing east. Black outlines added.

One goal of the 2014 field season was to see how newly-discovered burials aligned with the results of a geophysical survey that was conducted on the site in 1985. This early study included the use of ground-penetrating radar (GPR), which was used to detect 51 potential burials in the cemetery. Through excavations in 2014, archaeologists confirmed that 10 of these GPR readings were in fact grave shafts. Furthermore, 6 burials were discovered that were not originally found in the 1985 survey area (FIGURE 6). This could be due to the small size of some of the grave shafts, and the presence of tree roots, which can significantly muddle a below-ground radar reading.

FIGURE 6: Grave shafts identified in 2014 in relation to 1985 GPR readings.

Only a handful of historic-period artifacts were recovered during the 2014 field season. One such artifact was a small ornamental glass disk, molded with what appears to be a branch of coral. The glass piece was originally set in a brass button and would likely have been part of a cufflink. An almost identical glass button fragment was excavated from the cellar underneath the House for Families slave quarter site (FIGURE 7). The connection between these two similar artifacts, both found in contexts associated with Mount Vernon’s enslaved population, is intriguing.

FIGURE 7: Intaglio glass disk found in Slave Cemetery (left) compared with similar disk found in House for Families slave quarter (right).

Archaeologists also found high concentrations of prehistoric artifacts, speaking to the Native American presence at Mount Vernon that predates the Washington family tenure. The majority of these artifacts consist of flakes and lithic debitage from the production of various stone tools. A number of projectile points were found, some complete, others incomplete, highlighting the different stages of stone tool production that took place on the site (FIGURE 8).

FIGURE 8: Three prehistoric artifacts found in 2014 project area.

Archaeologists will continue excavating areas of the ridge southwest of Washington’s New Tomb for the presence of grave shafts and other archaeological features.