CHARLESTON, S.C. — Construction crews working on a $142 million performing arts center in Charleston’s historic district have uncovered more history about the city – a graveyard believed to date to the early 1700s.
As crews this month dug a trench to install water lines for the Gaillard Center, they found human bones. The work stopped, police were called, and the coroner was contacted.
It turned out workers had come upon a graveyard that doesn’t appear on any historic plan of Charleston, founded in 1670.
In all, 37 graves have been found, and remains have been exhumed from five. It will take a couple of weeks to remove the rest.
“These graves are likely from the first half of the 18th century – 1750 and perhaps much earlier. The area where they were was well outside the city at that point,” said Eric Poplin, an archaeologist and the vice president of Brockington and Associates, a consulting firm helping to investigate the site.
Susan Able, a forensic anthropologist with the Charleston County Coroner’s Office, said the remains will be examined to determine age, race and sex.
“We’ll try to see what happened to them,” she said. “Was it a disease process or trauma or sickness or were they a generally healthy person?”
Historical records show three owners of the property – but no mention of a graveyard – before a fourth owner built a house in 1761.
“I assume he wouldn’t have built the house on the cemetery if he had known it was there,” Poplin said.
Of the five graves exhumed, only one artifact has been found – the head of a brass pin used on shrouds. That could mean the dead were simply put in the ground; there is no trace of wood rot or nails to indicate the use of coffins.
The ground might have been a graveyard for slaves or indentured servants, for which no records were kept. The graves of all four of the property owners are known to be elsewhere, Poplin said.
“The area was well outside the city for several decades,” he said. “Poor people dying in the city may have been carried out because they weren’t members of a church and couldn’t get into a churchyard.”
It’s not the first time unexpected graves have been uncovered in Charleston.
In 2010, an empty lot known to have been a churchyard was the site for a new city Housing Authority building.
In the late 1990s, 26 Confederates, including members of the first crew of the H.L. Hunley, were removed from under the floor of The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Dustin Clemens, the Gaillard project manager for the city, said the exhumations are not expected to delay work on the arts center. It’s scheduled for completion in December 2014. City officials say the center will be a world-class performing arts facility used for the Spoleto Festival and other performances.
But it’s still unclear what will be done with the remains.
“One option is to reinter them on site, another is to take them to a cemetery,” Clemens said, adding that public hearings will be held.
Kelly Deans, a site manager for Skanska USA – which is building the Gaillard Center with Trident Construction – said he has never encountered a graveyard on a project before.
“I was working down in Florida and I dug up a cannon ball and at Orlando one time in Florida I dug up a jeep,” he said. “But human remains, this is my first time.”