At this Virginia agency, bones of the dead are people in need of homes
Elizabeth Moore, Virginia’s state archaeologist, with a high school student around 2017. (Courtesy Elizabeth Moore)
Elizabeth Moore and Joanna Wilson Green are kind to their guests – even though these companions are very old and very dead.
Moore and Green, state-employed archaeologists, tend to Virginia’s homeless human remains, typically bones and pieces of bones.
To Moore and Green, these bones aren’t artifacts. They are human beings. Guests. People who need to find their loved ones.
The lonely bones reside in the repository of the women’s employer, the state Department of Historic Resources in Richmond’s Museum District.
“Our goal would be for all of our guests to go home,” said Green, speaking with Moore in a small meeting room at the agency. “I would love to retire and have no human beings in residence here. That’s my goal. Whether or not we can achieve it is another question entirely.”
The way Moore and Green treat these bones – the very way they talk about them – reflects a change in ethics of many modern archaeologists, scientists once widely regarded as little more than grave robbers.
Archaeologists have moved toward this more respectful approach over the past decade or so, said Jack Gary, director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg.
“That is the norm,” Gary said.
Archaeologists study history by analyzing what they find underground, from spear points to skeletons. For a long time, these digs were conducted with little respect for human remains and their living relatives.
But in the 1990s, state and federal laws aimed at protecting the dead prompted a major attitude shift. One federal law, for example, requires that Native American bones in many cases go not into museum displays but back to their tribes.
More recently – over the past 20 years or so, Moore said – archaeologists have been getting even more respectful, not just because of the law but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
Furthermore, showing respect for human remains and their living relatives helps archaeologists, experts say, because these relatives often have oral histories, records and other materials that can aid the research.
“It makes better archaeology,” Moore said. “”Why would you go out and antagonize an entire community and not have their information and perspective to inform your work?”
Moore, 60, a cheerful, brown-haired woman, is Virginia’s state archaeologist. She is in charge of, among other things, the repository – made up of lots of shelves and boxes – that holds the bones.
Green, tall and athletic-looking at 53, deals most often with the bones, making sure they are properly removed from the ground and seeking homes for them if possible – say, with an Indian tribe or other descendants.
To say Moore and Green are protective of the bones in their charge is like saying a mother grizzly can be attentive. About 150 sets of remains are stored among about 6 million artifacts such as arrowheads, pipes and ceramic pots. The public can see many of the pipes and pots, but no outsiders – including the Virginia Mercury – are allowed to see the bones. You can’t even see the boxes the bones are in.
“That’s a good example of how things have changed,” said Gary, of Colonial Williamsburg, which has a similar policy. “We don’t want to trivialize it or sensationalize it, so we don’t show any human remains.”
Green said, “These are not artifacts. They are not objects. They are not things that sit in museums in dusty boxes. They embody the culture and the society and the emotional connection of people who are still living, and you have to treat them differently. …It would be the same if I had the bones of your mom or your dad in my care.”
A slow change
Many museums and academics are also demonstrating this greater respect, but it hasn’t seeped entirely into the general public, experts say.
“There are still people around who think nothing of having human skeletons in their homes and displayed on their fireplace mantels,” Moore said. “It will take a long time to change those attitudes.”
People sometimes inherit human remains – Grandpa might have dug up some bones long ago on his land – and don’t know what to do with them. What they can do, Moore said, is contact her.
It’s illegal in Virginia to disturb a burial site, Moore said. It’s also illegal to buy or sell human remains, although it’s not against the law to possess them.
If you find human remains, you should call the police. If the police don’t want the bones because they’ve determined the remains aren’t evidence of a crime, they become guests of Moore and Green.
Human remains turn up at construction sites, at archaeological digs, in eroding stream banks and sometimes in yards.
“As people are planting their gardens and putting in patios and things like that, it’s not infrequent that people find bodies in the backyard,” Moore said.
A paved-over church site
Two Virginia cases illustrate the rise of respect for the dead and their descendants: the discovery of human remains at Colonial Williamsburg in 2020 and a discovery at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1994.
Archaeologists at Colonial Williamsburg, a living-history museum, are excavating the former site of First Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest churches founded entirely by Black people. Colonial Williamsburg bought the site in the 1950s and later paved over it.
The dig began in summer 2020. The scientists discovered the foundation of the church’s original meeting house, then late that year found graves. From the beginning, the dig team has kept close contact with church members – possible relatives of the dead – and the discovery of the graves triggered another consultation. The church members decided they wanted the dig to continue.
“That’s a big difference right there in how we operate today,” Gary said. “In the past we probably would have just continued excavating without involving the community in the decision-making process.”
Gary’s team has found more than 50 graves, and they’re still digging. The archaeologists removed a full skeleton from one grave and bone fragments from two others, Gary said. The remains are now at the College of William and Mary for study.
Scientists there hope to determine the age, sex and possibly race of the dead. Bone samples have also gone to the University of Connecticut for DNA analyses. That work could link the dead to living people, although not to specific individuals.
Plans call for the three sets of bones to be reburied in their graves. Colonial Williamsburg also plans to build a reproduction of that early church building and tell the story of those long-ago worshippers.
“Colonial Williamsburg is now doing the right thing,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a First Baptist member who stays in close contact with Gary.
Years ago, Harshaw said, “There was just a total disregard for the Black population, and the level of importance that was attached to it, I think, has now come full circle. We are happy to see that.”
Today, church members want to know about the people who were covered by pavement decades ago.
“For the descendant community, this has been more of a healing process than it is anything else,” Harshaw said. “It is hopeful and something they thought they would never see in their lifetimes.”
Bodies in a well
Northwest of Williamsburg, the VCU case also shows a clear change in attitudes. Construction excavation at the Richmond school’s Medical College of Virginia campus in 1994 uncovered an old well holding the remains of more than 50 people, including children.
The bones are believed to be the remains of Black cadavers robbed from graves in the 1800s for use by teachers of anatomy and surgery. Bones of multiple people were mixed when taken from the site, displaying the cavalier attitude toward the dead more common in prior years.
The bone pit generated a few news stories but otherwise remained “largely unaddressed,” VCU acknowledges.
More recently, VCU launched the East Marshall Street Well Project to find ways to study, rebury and memorialize the remains. A council of people who, in effect, serve as descendants is investigating West African burial practices, said Kevin Allison, a VCU senior executive who oversees the project.
The remains were housed for years at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In 2019 they were returned to Richmond in archival boxes wrapped in colorful Ghanaian fabric called kente cloth. The bones – the people – were honored with prayer, music and speeches at several sites, including the Department of Historic Resources, where they were housed for a while.
“It was a crowded, emotional, heartwarming event,” Moore said.
For the record, photos of those adorned boxes of remains were allowed because representatives of the well project gave approval. The remains are now at VCU for study.
VCU’s Allison said those involved in the project are bent on “ensuring that we provide appropriate respect and reverence to these individuals, particularly considering their history.”
‘The very large error of that approach’
Today, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ stored remains – some 1,000 years old or more – include partial skeletons but mostly bone parts, because Virginia’s acidic soils eat away at bones.
“It’s rare that we get a whole skeleton,” Moore said.
Or, as Green put it, ”I think most of our guests are not intact.”
The bones are kept in acid-free archival boxes. In another move to treat the dead better, the department recently got a $9,870 federal grant to help obtain more-respectful containers. Details are being worked out.
Moore and Green are serious about their work but not prudish about the dead in popular culture. Green loves mummy films and scary-movie actor Boris Karloff. Moore is okay with plastic skulls at Halloween.
For a very long time human remains were viewed as artifacts, just like arrowheads and other things.
– Joanna Wilson Green, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources
“They are not representing a real person,” Moore said.
Among those upset with the work of archaeologists over the years, African Americans and Indians have been particularly critical because of the scientists’ oft-callous handling of remains.
“I think for a very long time human remains were viewed as artifacts, just like arrowheads and other things,” Green said. “And it has been a very recent development that our profession has realized the very large error of that approach and has tried very hard to address it, not just in our interactions with some communities but in our own behaviors.”
Archaeologists are still working to change perceptions, she said. “It will probably be a couple more generations before there’s a comfort level there. That’s one of our biggest jobs.”
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