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Archaeologists unearth unrecorded graves near University cemetery

Workers discover 30 unrecorded tomb shafts, identities remain unknown

Archaeologists working to expand the University cemetery last week unearthed 30 previously unrecorded grave shafts at the site of the cemetery, the University announced Friday.

The identities of those buried in the graves have yet to be determined, but archival evidence suggests the graves once held enslaved African-Americans who helped build the University.

The cemetery expansion project, which the University initiated in 2008, began with archeological surveys of the historically sensitive area, said Jody Lahendro, Preservation Architect and Project Manager for the Cemetery Expansion Project. Rivanna Archeological Services completed its first stage of archeological survey last spring but found nothing of notable significance.

Archeologists found the graves during the project’s second stage while in the process of clearing topsoil from the entire construction area. Nine of the 30 graves are believed to be children.

“We remove enough soil to come down onto the tops of the grave shafts and we look for soil color differences and soil texture differences,” said Benjamin Ford, principal of Rivanna Archeological Services.

During its construction, the University buried its servants just outside of the north side cemetery wall, Ford said.

The expansion site is located roughly 100 feet north of the original cemetery, in the same vicinity University workers were likely buried.

“We know that African-Americans were part of the University community from its very founding,” said Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention. “As enslaved laborers they built the Academical Village and were likely among the first residents of what became the University of Virginia.”

The University in the past would likely have brushed the finding aside, Fraser said, but now it is taking this opportunity to commemorate African-Americans’ contributions to the University.

“Now we have been given another opportunity, to dialogue and fully engage our institutional history — to remember, to commemorate and to repair,” she said.

The University plans to memorialize these grave shafts as a way to recognize the unrewarded work slaves contributed to the University. “We still plan to go ahead with the cemetery expansion, [but are] looking at other options that were identified in the master plan for the cemetery — most likely at the south side of the cemetery — but this will be untouched except for being appropriately memorialized,” Chief Facilities Officer Donald Sundgren said.

Archaeologists anticipate completing the survey after two more days of work, during which time workers will refine the construction area by verifying there are no more graves in the work area.

The University does not plan to excavate the graves, Ford said.