By Rebecca Morehouse, Curator of State Collections, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded a project to build townhouses in the block between what is now City Gate Lane and Dean Street in Annapolis. Excavation of the townhouse basements disturbed a portion of what was later identified as a 19th-century African American family cemetery. When archeologists at the Maryland Historical Trust heard of the discovery, they went to the site to rescue the human remains that had been exposed. They carefully mapped, photographed, and removed what turned out to be the partial remains of two individuals. In the event of this kind of inadvertent discovery, an archeologist’s priority is to identify what remains of the burials, document as much of the site as possible, and transfer any human remains to another location for protection. In the case of these two individuals, they were placed in the custody of MHT, and cared for at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (MAC Lab) at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM), a unit of MHT.
Little was known about these two individuals until research conducted by Janice Hayes-Williams in the early 2000s indicated their remains were likely removed from what had been the family cemetery of Smith Price. Price, formerly enslaved, came to Annapolis as a free man. He owned the property where an 1860s plat indicated his family cemetery was located, as well as the land where the Asbury United Methodist Church now stands less than a block away. Smith Price was a founding member of the African Meeting House in Annapolis, which eventually became the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1803, Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in 1838, and then the Asbury United Methodist Church in 1968 (Figure 1).
While attending a meeting at the MAC Lab in April 2019, Janice Hayes-Williams asked me if the human remains from the Smith Price family cemetery were curated at the MAC Lab. When I told her they were, she asked if the remains could be returned to Annapolis and reburied there. A flurry of correspondence soon followed, as MHT staff worked with the Office of the Attorney General to chart a course for the permanent transfer of the remains that would satisfy State regulations.
The official request for transfer came from Asbury UMC in June 2019 and was quickly approved by the MHT Board of Trustees. The transfer took place on July 24, 2019 in a ceremony at Asbury UMC. In preparation for their trip to back to Annapolis, Janice Hayes-Williams wrapped the boxes which held the remains with Kente cloth and adorned them with sunflowers (Figure 2). I had the honor of assisting.
Once in the custody of the Asbury UMC, the church transferred the individuals to Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief Archaeologist at the Maryland State Highway Administration. Dr. Schablitsky took the lead on coordinating the analysis of the remains, which included a detailed examination and inventory by Dr. Dana Kollmann, Forensic Anthropologist at Towson University, and facial reconstruction by forensic artist Detective Eve Grant (Figure 3). Dr. Schablitsky also arranged for DNA testing at DNA Labs International in Florida. Unfortunately, the extracted DNA was degraded and, while the scientists are still trying, they have been unable to match it to living descendants.
Analysis by Dr. Kollmann showed that the remains belonged to a man and a child of African ancestry. The man likely died sometime in his late forties or early fifties. Associated coffin nails dated to the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Though no personal artifacts were recovered with the skeletal remains, blue-green discoloration on the man’s left wrist indicates the presence of a copper alloy burial shroud pin, button, or cufflink. His skeleton showed evidence that he was muscular and would have participated in heavy physical labor. He had a minor injury to his left shin, which, while not resulting in a break, would have been painful. He also had arthritis in his right arm and shoulder, which would have also caused significant pain and hindered his movements. His teeth had a well-defined pipe facet from carrying a tobacco pipe between his teeth on the right side of his mouth. The cause of the man’s death could not be determined.
The child, of unknown gender, likely died between the ages of 5 and 6 years. Copper alloy staining on the left temple suggests the child may have been wrapped in a burial shroud held in place with a copper alloy pin. The teeth show evidence of malnutrition or a significant illness, such as influenza. However, this did not contribute to the child’s death.
On November 1, 2019, Maryland’s Emancipation Day, following a community ceremony at Asbury UMC, these two individuals were laid to rest for a second time in St. Anne’s Cemetery in Annapolis (Figures 4 and 5).
While MHT does not encourage the excavation of human remains, there are times when burials are threatened and must be removed, as with the case of the Smith Price family cemetery. Today, unlike in 1980, immediate relocation or reburial of disturbed human remains is now the preferred course of action, rather than being placed in the care of the State. On the occasion that human remains do end up in MHT’s custody, they are placed in a specially designated area, known as an appropriate place of repose, apart from the State’s other collections. This area is only accessible by MHT staff and is not visible to the public.
I consider the care of these individuals a sacred responsibility and one of the most important duties I have as Curator. However, if I am given the opportunity to help facilitate the return and reburial of human remains in MHT’s custody, I am honored to do so. Being able to participate in the preparation of the human remains, as well as the transfer and reburial ceremonies, was an experience which I will not soon forget.