The masonry workers carefully removed part of the old rowhouse's brick foundation and began excavating the dirt on the other side. First they came across some wooden planks. Then they found what looked like human remains -- a jaw, most teeth still intact, several joints, some ribs.
Georgia Ravitz, who has lived in the elegant Georgetown home in the 3300 block of Q Street NW for seven years, said she was surprised at Wednesday's gruesome discovery. But only a little.
An old tombstone was found on the roof of a house on Q Street NW nearly 50 years ago. It now lies in the garden under a stone pedestal and carved head.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
She knew that a human skull had been excavated in her neighbor's yard nearly half a century earlier and that the park across the street stood on the site of one of the city's oldest and most prestigious burial grounds.
Her neighbor had found a tombstone discarded on her roof when she bought her house in 1957. And a woman, now 100, who was born a few doors down recalls her father digging to enlarge their basement and stumbling upon nine sets of skeletal remains.
"I would not be surprised at all if there's a lot more bodies buried somewhere on this block," Ravitz said.
Police cordoned off the entrance to the basement with yellow tape Wednesday evening and notified forensic scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, who are trying to determine whether the remains are human.
If so, the scientists will try to figure out how old the bones are, the sex, age and ancestry of the person they came from, and the circumstances that may have led to that person's death.
The answers could shed light on how the bones came to be buried near the house, the oldest part of which was built about 1850, Ravitz said.
If the remains are of African descent -- the area had a mix of white and black residents since before the Civil War, and Ravitz said the original land records display a C that means that the first owners were "colored" -- the bodies could have been interred in accordance with tribal tradition.
"In many West African societies, the dead were buried under the house or very nearby," said historian C.R. Gibbs, who has done extensive research on Georgetown's black community.
He said such burials were common among Americans of African descent well into the 19th century and often included small personal articles and keepsakes with the body. Although no such burials have been discovered in Washington, Gibbs said, they have been uncovered in Annapolis, Williamsburg and elsewhere.
Ravitz, a lawyer who lives in the house with her husband and two young children, said the description of such burials reminded her of a collection of items she once unearthed while gardening: a doll, an empty medicine bottle and a few shells.
The remains also could have come from the Presbyterian cemetery established before the American Revolution, on land eventually bordered by the streets known today as Q, R, 33rd and 34th.
At its largest, the cemetery held about 2,700 graves, including those of former mayors of Georgetown and other prominent citizens, according to old newspaper accounts.