Above ground they could see the old plantation house known as Rutland. Below ground they knew there was a family cemetery that dated back to the 1700’s. And members of the Timberlake family who had owned the property for two hundred years pointed out the approximate location of an African American cemetery on the property.
But the significance of what developer HHHunt has discovered and preserved at the 202 acres they are developing on U.S. 301 in Hanover County, Virginia is of national significance. Data obtained from the graves and the cast-iron coffin of the plantation’s patriarch Archibald Burnett Timberlake, who died in 1863 will become part of the “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in November 2008.
“It is very valuable and we can learn a great deal of information that you will not find in the history books,” said Doug Owsley, division head for physical anthropology in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History who is conducting the research on the archeological finds from the Hanover County property. His group is analyzing burial sites across the Chesapeake including those from Jamestown, Virginia and St. Mary’s, Maryland for the exhibit. “When you are dealing with the 17th century there are a lot of gaps. You can tell a person’s story through their bones as well as learn about people that no one ever wrote a word about that survived to us today.”
The archeological investigation of the Timberlake family cemetery and the precise location and excavation of the African American cemetery were prompted when HHHunt needed a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for the development. Virginia state law requires that any property that requires Federal permitting must also undergo an archeological evaluation.
Daniel T. Schmitt, president of HHHunt Communities first met with Donald Timberlake of the Timberlake family, when they purchased the property.
“He informed us that not only was the Timberlake family buried in the graveyard in front of the Rutland house, but that Timberlake family history indicated that there was a former slave cemetery on the site as well,” said Schmitt adding that the tangible and intangible information from the Timberlake family was invaluable to the research at the development site.
HHHunt then contracted Cultural Resources, Inc. (CRI) to conduct the initial required archeological review; then they kept the site completely shut down so CRI could do a more intensive study of the graves.
“The investigation process, obtainment of permits and ultimate relocation of the cemeteries caused at a minimum, a two to three month delay in obtaining plan approvals and starting construction,” said Schmitt. He projects that HHHunt’s total cost, excluding the cost of internal resource time and construction delays, will be about a quarter million dollars. “But the historical information that will be gained through this research for both Hanover as well as the nation is something you just cannot put a price tag on.”
It was during the work at the family cemetery and the discovery of the cast-iron coffin that first brought the Smithsonian into the picture.
“The Smithsonian put out an APB on all archeological sites producing cast iron coffins because the preservation of the remains is like a time capsule,” said Dane Magoon, bio-archaeologist and senior principal investigator for CRI, who is doing the osteological study of the human remains found at the site. Cast-iron coffins are rare because of the high cost to purchase them in the 1800’s – many times the cost of a wooden coffin.
“It is well preserved and not a common find,” said Owsley who asked permission of the Timberlake family to take the coffin to the Smithsonian for further study. The Timberlakes have since donated the coffin to be part of the museum exhibit.
When the unmarked African American cemetery was located, the Smithsonian along with CRI began extensive research on the remains. The Smithsonian is doing isotope research on the bones.
“From the carbon isotopes we can determine where a person is from – if they are from England or Europe or Africa or if they were American born,” said Owsley. “With nitrogen isotopes we can tell how much vegetable food they have in their diet as well as protein. And each of these skeletons can tell us a person’s age, sex, how tall they were and how much physical labor they did. We can also gain information about their health and sometimes the cause of death.”
“You usually do not get this type of resource window,” said Magoon about the rare find of two separate populations both living at the same time and place. “It is not just a single individual; we are actually looking at the entire cemetery as an entire population of people. We will do a period demographic reconstruction of both burial populations looking at age, sex of the individuals within the cemeteries and the pathologies. We will be looking at how they lived their lives and the interesting stuff will come out of the comparison of the two populations.”
“It is a very important series with both groups represented and one of our principal population samples of human remains to carry out this written bones initiative,” said Owsley about the museum exhibit..
Due to Virginia Department of Transportation guidelines and identified wetlands areas the two cemeteries and the Rutland House (circa 1790 to 1810 and used as headquarters by Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart) had to be moved. The 19 Timberlake family members have been reinterred in the post-Civil War Timberlake family plot in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. One more relative was reinterred in Franklin, Virginia. But when it came to deciding what to do with the 57 graves identified in the African American cemetery, HHHunt turned to the community for answers.
Reber Dunkel, professor of sociology at Randolph-Macon College and a member of the board of directors of the Hanover County Black Heritage Society, said his group was concerned about the preservation of the remains and having them handled with dignity.
The group presented a list of their concerns to the Hanover County Board of Supervisors at a meeting where HHHunt was in attendance. “HHHunt assured me after that meeting that they would do it in a proper way,” said Dunkel whose groups had asked that the remains be reburied in a protected area in a similar configuration to the original cemetery. “HHHunt not only did it in a proper and respectful way, they went beyond. They funded research for these people who are buried so that their analysis will contribute to our understanding of the lives and the way they lived. We also set up an ad hoc committee of people who will be the caretakers for these people who did not have a voice or descendants.”
HHHunt is consulting with the Black Heritage Society about the memorial at Rutland house that will be used as a community clubhouse. All materials associated with the graves - whether clothing, artifacts, jewelry or hardware from the burial containers - will be reburied with each individual. The Smithsonian’s research will also be available at the local libraries.
“It will give a voice to a group of individuals who until now have been without a spokesperson, and through them we will learn about their lives and their deaths,” said Jody L. Allen, PhD, visiting assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary whose dissertation covers black history in Hanover from 1865 - 1969.
“I am so thankful that HHHunt went beyond the minimum and has become a real model for future developers in how developers should approach this issue,” said Dunkel. “They did it the right way.”
Owsley agrees that the way HHHunt handled the situation by engaging the services of an archeological firm and allowing the Smithsonian to participate “serves as an example.”
The property, now named “Rutland”, will be a mixed use, master planned community that includes single family neighborhoods, townhomes, active adult neighborhoods, retail shops, a Kroger grocery store, daycare facility and office park. Schmitt says that this is the first time the company has been challenged with such extensive archeology and removal of burial sites. “In our years of experience with community development, we have not experienced a situation like that at Rutland,” he said. “In the past, we have been able to design around any cemeteries that were discovered in the development process. I am glad we were able to preserve this valuable historical information and accommodate both the descendants and community to come up with the best and most honorable solution for everyone.” A public formal ceremony dedicating the memorial/burial area and the historic Rutland House (now a clubhouse) will be held this coming summer.
Alphine W. Jefferson, professor of history and black studies at Randolph-Macon College, president of the Oral History Association and a member of the board of directors of the Hanover County Black Heritage Society says HHHunt’s willingness to listen to a community group and merge its commercial interests with the interests of preservation will have a tremendous impact on the history of Hanover County. “Literally this slave cemetery is a record and we have been able to save it,” he said. “In some ways it becomes a kind of living history of a people who lived more than 150 years ago.”