Found  /  Discovery

Faces of the Dead Emerge From Lost African American Graveyard

The bones of enslaved furnace workers tell the grim story of their lives.

Burial 35 was a young enslaved woman who walked with a limp and was missing a front tooth. She was in her 30s when she died, perhaps in childbirth. Her infant son, who died a few months later, was buried in a tiny coffin on top of her.

When the experts re-created her weary face, they gave her a headscarf, something she might have worn in the grimy Maryland industrial settlement where she lived.

Burial 15 was a teenager who had been laid to rest with care and what may have been sprigs of sassafras. The herniated discs in his back from overwork could not be reflected in his face, and the sculptor gave him a look of innocence.

The two re-created faces, unveiled for the first time last month, represent the culmination of an eight-year study that used genetics and other cutting-edge technology to examine remains of people enslaved in the late 1700s and early 1800s at Catoctin Furnace, a historic iron forge in Frederick County, Md.

The study offered a rare look of the enslaved at an industrial site, as opposed to the farms or plantations where most captive Black people were forced to labor.

Researchers said they were struck by the number of teenagers in the cemetery and wondered if the harsh furnace work played a role in their early deaths.

Experts from the Harvard laboratory of geneticist David Reich extracted DNA from the bones of 29 people exhumed from the cemetery more than 40 years ago for a road project and identified five, maybe six, family groups.

“I called them the invisible people,” said Sharon Burnston, the retired archaeologist who directed the exhumation. “In the cultural climate of the ’80s, nobody even cared.”

DNA helped reveal mothers and their children, and individuals who were potential siblings.

It suggested racial backgrounds. The baby buried with his enslaved Black mother, for example, had a White father, experts said.

And it revealed intriguing burial patterns.

In one case, two baby boys — one a newborn, the other about 2 months old — were buried on either side of their mother, who was about 22 when she died. Some distance away, another relative of hers, a boy, was buried. But their exact relationship is unclear.

Smithsonian anthropologists, who helped direct the study, found evidence of childhood diseases and congenital deformities.

Craniostenosis, an abnormality of the skull, was found in an unusually high number of the deceased.

The woman whose face was re-created had it. So did her infant son, who may have been killed by it.

Her little brother, who was buried not far away, also had it, Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide said.


Recovering the Black Past through African American Cemeteries

CONTRASTING METHODS: What if the people themselves, rather than the places of burial, are the focus of commemoration? DNA and forensics analysis of human remains offer opportunities for a different kind of cultural retrieval.