Photo Credit: Joe Lanning
UGA professor Laurie Reitsema works on an unidentified archeological site.
Anthropologists can tell all kinds of things from bones: a person’s gender, age and ethnicity; what kind of food they ate; what kind of work they did; whether they were rich or poor; certain diseases they suffered from.
So, from a few bone fragments found underneath Baldwin Hall during a construction project in 2015, Laurie Reitsema, a UGA professor and director of the Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Laboratory, has been able to piece together what life may have been like for those forgotten souls—“voiceless people whose stories may be underrepresented in historical accounts,” as she put it during a presentation last week. But, to a certain extent, their bones can speak for them.
The remains were buried in the Old Athens (or Jackson Street) Cemetery, which now occupies a small, fenced-off area on campus, but may have run all the way from Broad Street nearly to Baldwin Street before the university began encroaching on it in the 1880s. The cemetery opened in the 1790s—around the time of Athens’ founding—and officially closed in the 1850s, although it remained in use until the 1890s.
Bodies were buried in a narrower, snug hole dug at the bottom of the grave, with wood placed over the coffin to keep out soil—a technique with roots in Africa but widely adopted by everyone in the South at that time. Many graves were marked with wooden markers or field stones that have long since vanished.
The remains of about 30 people were recovered, mostly in a very fragmented state, with only portions of a few bones remaining. Half were adults and half children; 10 were male and 12 female, of those that could be identified. Most were African American and likely slaves, but Reitsema said some had European or even East Asian ancestry, according to mitochondrial DNA testing.
“Health wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as terrible as it was in some other parts of the Southeast,” Reitsema said.
Based on comparisons with remains from the same time period in other parts of the South, in general, their health was better than in bigger cities like Atlanta and Augusta, and far better than a plantation in Charleston, with comparatively few signs of maladies like bone infections, arthritis or anemia—probably a sign that most of them worked in factories, or as carpenters or gardeners, rather than in the cotton fields. Overall, women’s health was poorer than men’s.
At the end of her presentation, Reitsema singled out one man for a more extensive biography. “He amazed us with his experiences, because he lived one of the hardest lives of anyone in the community,” she said. Standing only 5 feet 4 inches—short even for the 19th Century—his body was built up and then worn down by decades of backbreaking agricultural work, and others must have looked up to him for his strength and experience, she said. Arthritis in his legs, back and shoulders—as well as abscesses or cavities in half his teeth, caused by a poor diet of cornbread and molasses—would have caused him constant pain by the time he died in his 40s.
This man may have been an ancestor of people living in Athens today. It’s impossible to know for sure without further DNA testing, both of the remains and of potential living descendents. The remains have been reinterred at Oconee Hill Cemetery, but Reitsema said she has what she needs for testing of nuclear, rather than mitochondrial, DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is easier to extract, she said, but only provides information about the maternal line of ancestors.
Although UGA has announced further research into the lives of Athens slaves, Reitsema said she is waiting for signs of community approval before proceeding.