Mysteries are being unearthed from the grounds of Alexandria's historic Christ Church as the graveyard is dug up to make room for an addition to the old Parish House.
Among the surprises is the fact that the Episcopal parish frequented by the nation's first president and by Robert E. Lee was not only a burial ground for the elite, but includes the graves of people of all ages and social classes.
"The myth is that because it was George Washington's church it must have only served the elite of Virginia," said Pam Cressey, Alexandria city archeologist. "But there were a lot of itinerate people buried here, with no names on the gravestones, or no stones at all." Because graves have recently been identified as those of slaves and children, "It's clear that the church was serving in a communal welfare capacity that the government didn't do at that time," Cressey said.
A special tour and program on the findings of the archeological investigation, along with historical facts about the 213-year-old building, will be presented from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the church. Christ Church is at 118 N. Washington St., at the intersection of Cameron Street in Old Town.
The dig into what lies beneath the lush green grass of the graveyard was started in August to allow for a $2.2 million construction and renovation project. Special care is being taken to protect the gravesites, and a memorial service will be held when the stones are returned to their original locations after construction.
"The goal was not to see who was buried where, but to protect anything that might have been destroyed by this construction project," Cressey said.
One of the more difficult tasks was to move the elaborate, above-ground stone mausoleum of actress Anne Warren, described on her tombstone as "one of the brightest ornaments on the American stage." Warren died at Gadsby's Tavern in 1808, according to burial records.
Although the only human remains uncovered in the Christ Church graveyard have been some teeth, which were turned over to the church for safekeeping, archeologists have been able to learn from the coloration of the soil where various bodies were buried, Cressey said.
"The best way to describe what we find is that it looks like a shadow," Cressey said. "If you stand up and look you can get a clear outline, but it's like looking through gauze."
Information from these soil colorations is being combined with data from the census, tombstones, and burial permits issued between 1784 and 1796 to develop a demographic analysis of the graveyard, Cressey said. Preliminary information already reveals that as many as 1,000 people may have been buried in the churchyard between 1770 and 1808, after which new graves were not allowed. Special permission was granted, however, to later create a mass grave for Confederate soldiers, which is now covered with wildflowers and visible from N. Washington Street.
Many of the questions about the graveyard will go unanswered, however, because the ground has shifted and the actual sites of graves don't necessarily match the location of tombstones. "I was surprised to find that the graves above ground often bore no resemblance to what we found underneath," Cressey said.
Christ Church is seeking community donations to supplement the $1.7 million already raised within the congregation, according to church spokesman Gail Blachly. The structures have special historical significance as part of the only church built during colonial times that survives in Alexandria. It receives more than 70,000 visitors a year who come to see the place where Washington and Lee worshipped.