Discovery of unknown cemeteries at Hunter Army Airfield sheds light on a forgotten past

Submitted by Shalonda Rountree (shalonda.rountree@us.army.mil)

Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia has been the focus of an important archaeological discovery over the last three years. In August of 2006 during excavation for a fiber-optic utility line in the heart of the Airfield’s cantonment, construction workers encountered several bones quite unexpectedly. All work on the utility trench ceased immediately and the Installation’s archaeologist, Brian Greer, investigated the disturbed burial and determined that the remains were that of one individual buried in a coffin. It was at that point the Installation realized there was a strong possibility that an unknown cemetery may have been lost to time.

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New South team member Andrew Belcourt shovel skims a burial feature taking care not to disturb the remains that lie beneath (photograph courtesy of New South Associates, Inc.).

In order to complete the excavation of the utility trench and avoid disturbing any other graves that may be in the vicinity, a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) unit was brought in to guide the remaining portion of the trench. As a result of the GPR, additional suspected graves were noted nearby and the path of the utility trench was altered slightly to avoid any further disturbances. Additional work was halted and the Installation initiated a larger radar sweep of the surrounding area. The location under examination consisted of two boulevards, a paved parking lot, and several grassy medians. After extensive radar sweeps of the location, the potential for a significant number of burials was suggested by the radar.

Upon the realization that this initial single burial may actually be part of a much larger unknown cemetery, the Installation contracted the services of New South Associates, Inc. in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District. The initial goal was to determine the size and origin of the cemetery. Although archaeological surveys had been previously conducted nearby, no signs of any cemetery were ever encountered. According to base records, the parking lot and boulevards had been in existence for over 50 years.

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Remnant of the only inscribed grave marker recovered (photograph courtesy of New South Associates, Inc.).

Upon the discovery of the initial burial, the Installation contacted the State Historic Preservation Office. Through close coordination and monitoring by staff archaeologists, the Installation was able to successfully complete the installation of the fiber optic cable without disturbing any additional suspected remains.

The discovery of a cemetery in such an environment created a challenge to the contracted mortuary archaeologists. Since the cemetery lies beneath asphalt and concrete, a significant amount of time and effort was required to remove this obstruction. The parking lot and road removal was carefully monitored by the Installation and New South Associates, Inc. over several days to ensure no burials were damaged. After 2 acres of asphalt and concrete were removed, the underlying soil was exposed. Due to the sandy nature of this hill, the grave outlines were not discernable until approximately 10 cm above each burial. Typical burial shafts that would normally be visible closer to the original surface had been obliterated over time. After weeks of careful backhoe excavation and hand shoveling by New South Associates, a total of 37 burials were discovered.

Of these 37 graves, a sample was examined to determine their condition and potential for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as a cemetery of significance. With minimal intrusion, it was determined that the cemetery represented an African-American cemetery dating from the 1880s to the 1910s. Furthermore, the condition of the burials indicated good preservation, and therefore the cemetery was considered to be a potential candidate for the NRHP.

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This small bisque lamb figurine represents one of the various grave goods found during excavation of the cemeteries (photograph courtesy of New South Associates, Inc.).

Initial examination of Installation documents and historic maps did not provide any clues to the origins of this lost cemetery. Therefore, the Installation looked to the public for help. Since the area was planned for further development, the Installation solicited public input from the surrounding communities through newspaper announcements, television interviews, and public meetings. Unfortunately, no members of the public came forward with information pertaining to this cemetery. Although this cemetery was just over a hundred years old, it appeared the memory of its existence had faded completely.

After efforts to solicit comments from the public, consultation with the SHPO, and through the course of an Environmental Assessment, it was determined that the best course of action was to archaeologically excavate the cemetery and respectfully reinter the burials within an existing cemetery elsewhere on the Installation (known as Belmont Cemetery). With future upgrades to the road and parking lot associated with the construction of a new barracks complex for the Rangers, a research plan was developed through a Memorandum of Agreement with the Georgia SHPO in order to mitigate the adverse effects of relocation of this NRHP eligible cemetery.

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Custom engraved cufflink depicting an unknown church (photograph courtesy of New South Associates, Inc.).

Upon completion of the regulatory process, the mortuary archaeologists began the long task of hand excavating each grave, mapping every burial, and carefully recovering all grave materials for future reburial. Over the next several weeks, all burials were fully documented and the remains transferred to secure mortuary caskets for future reburial. The entire contents of the coffin, including the coffin fragments themselves, were stored with each burial. This entire assemblage was measured and photographed in order to document all available clues to the identity of the individuals interred.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Installation, another cemetery was being investigated. During the 1950s and 1970s, several burials were encountered during construction of an exercise course for the Rangers. At that time, all remains were excavated and moved to Belmont Cemetery. In 1994, during upgrades to the exercise course, an additional burial was encountered. Work halted and the burial was moved to the Belmont Cemetery. Due to the number of burials encountered, the Installation initiated a GPR survey of the exercise field in 1995. Several potential graves were identified and a sample of these radar “anomalies” were excavated. No additional graves were encountered, and it was believed that the likelihood for additional burials was very low to non-existent. However, a small portion of the exercise field had not been sampled due to large oak trees and other obstacles that interfered with the radar. With mortuary archaeologists and an available radar unit already on site, the Installation decided that an attempt to examine the areas missed by the previous radar survey was in order.

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An unusual collection of 9 sets of eyeglasses from a single burial (photograph courtesy of New South Associates, Inc.).

Initially, the radar results of this second look indicated only a small number of potential graves. All suspected graves were examined archaeologically, and it was not until the very last radar anomalies were examined that a single grave was encountered. As a matter of procedure, a 20-foot area around this grave was excavated to ensure no other graves had been missed by the radar. It was this 20-foot expansion that eventually led to the removal of almost an acre of topsoil to expose the boundaries of this other lost cemetery. After all exploratory work was done, an additional 385 burials were recovered from this missing portion of the 1995 radar survey.

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1889 map depicting “Negro Cemetery”.

During the investigation of this second cemetery, an extensive document search in the city of Savannah finally revealed a single map from 1889 labeling the area as a “Negro Cemetery.” Coupled with the examination of the skeletal remains as well as the age of coffin materials recovered, it was determined that this second cemetery was an African-American cemetery dating from the same time period as the first cemetery (i.e. 1880s to 1910s). Similar to the first cemetery, the remains were relatively well preserved and held the potential to provide significant information about a segment of the population of Savannah that has gone virtually unrecorded. Consequently, this cemetery was also deemed significant as a historical cemetery and underwent the same regulatory and decision making processes to respectfully move the graves to a more peaceful resting place in the Belmont Cemetery.

After all regulatory requirements were met and all burials were carefully excavated, the remains were all reinterred to the Belmont Cemetery. This cemetery was established in 1951 when the Army encountered several unmarked graves during the expansion of the airfield, and it proved to be the most suitable resting place for the newly discovered remains.

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Final resting ground for the 2 relocated cemeteries- Belmont Cemetery named after the Old Belmont Plantation.

During African-American History Month in February 2009, the Installation coordinated a rededication ceremony presided over by the Installation’s Garrison Commander and Chaplain. Members of the community were invited to this important ceremony, which was held for both cemeteries. Although no descendants have been identified from these two cemeteries, the rededication ceremony provided important closure to one individual in attendance. Mr. Drayton, who learned of the upcoming ceremony through his family, sat quietly in the audience. It was quickly learned that Mr. Drayton’s grandfather was buried in the original portion of the Belmont Cemetery when it was established in 1951. For Mr. Drayton, the ceremony “was a wonderful thing,” and he considered it “one of the greatest days of his life.” Until that ceremony, Mr. Drayton and his family never knew where their grandfather’s grave had been relocated. For now, at least one of the unknown markers in the Belmont Cemetery has a name and is among the honored dead.

Research continues by New South Associates on the information collected during the excavation of these important cemeteries; one goal is to find names for the remaining forgotten individuals. From this work, future researchers will begin to shed new light on the lives of African Americans during the Post-Emancipation era in the Savannah area. New South Associates’ final report of investigation is nearing completion and is expected to be completed in the months ahead. From these two cemeteries, a significant amount of information pertaining to the lifeways of African-American residents of the Georgia Coastal Plain will shed light on a relatively recent, yet forgotten past.

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