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An archaeological dig unearths one of the earliest slave remains in Delaware

A male skeleton of African ancestry was found at Avery’s Rest, a late 17th-century plantation in Rehoboth, Del. (Kate D. Sherwood/Smithsonian Institution)

The blow to the head of the man in grave 10 was so severe that it chipped off a bone near his right eyebrow, fractured part of his face, and probably helped to kill him.

He was about 35 years old and likely a slave. He had grooves in his front teeth where he had clenched his clay pipe as he worked, and evidence in his spine that he was engaged in hard labor.

It’s not known exactly what landed him in a hexagonal coffin in the sandy soil north of Delaware’s Rehoboth Bay 300 years ago: An assault, or an accident?

But fragments of his story, along with those of 10 others buried near him, have emerged from an archaeological dig at a long-vanished 17th-century plantation called Avery’s Rest in Sussex County.

At a news briefing Wednesday in Rehoboth Beach experts are scheduled to detail their findings, and talk about what may be the earliest slave remains found in Delaware.

“I think it’s huge,” said Dan Griffith, of the Archaeological Society of Delaware, who helped lead the effort. “It’s certainly the most extensively excavated 17th century site in Delaware . . .(and) just a fascinating project.”

Research suggests that there was little rest at Avery’s Rest.

“They’re clearing the land, and they’re planting tobacco,” said Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who has studied the bones from the graves. “They’re using their back to haul things that are heavier than” they should carry.

Life could be short. One grave contained a teething infant; another a 5-year-old.

And tobacco was king. The crop was heavily cultivated. It was smoked incessantly in hard clay pipes. And it served as the standard currency.

Fines, as well as belongings, were valued in pounds of tobacco.

A good horse was worth 1,500 pounds of tobacco. A frying pan was worth about 25 pounds. Slaves had the highest value — as much as 3,000 pounds each, according to an estate inventory related to the project.

The burial of the slave in grave 10, and two others nearby, show the harsh world in which they lived.

Interest in the site goes back to 1976, when state archaeologists found a mysterious area of oyster shells, tobacco pipes, and pieces of colonial pottery in a plowed field they were surveying.

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“Something was going on there,” said Griffith, then a state archaeologist who helped make the discovery. The experts spent a day gathering artifacts, and then moved on to other sites.

They asked a state historian to see who had owned the land in the past, and were told that it was “Avery’s Rest,” a settlement that dated from the mid to late 1600s.

The homestead was established by an English sea captain and planter, John Avery, then about 42, along with his family and at least two slaves, around 1674.

Avery and his wife, Sarah, had migrated from Massachusetts, where she was born, to the Manokin River, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and then to Delaware, where Avery would eventually own 800 acres of land.

Griffith, in a telephone interview last week, said the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. “And then it just sat there,” undisturbed for almost 30 years.

In 2006, the state discovered that the area might be developed, and asked the volunteers of the archaeological society to help conduct a new dig, Griffith said.

He said the society expanded the dig to an adjacent property over the next few seasons. And in 2012 they found the graves, “which we did not know were there,” he said.

The discovery came as the archaeologists were excavating a peculiar feature in the ground. As they dug further, the bones of a hand emerged.

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“I went, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” said Griffith, who was by then retired from the state and head of the Avery’s Rest project for the archaeological society. “We cleared off that level . . . and found the top of the skull and a copper stain from a shroud pin.”

The team notified state authorities and got permission to proceed.

The archaeologists eventually found 11 graves containing the well-preserved skeletons of seven men, two women, and two children of undetermined sex, according to a report produced by the project last summer.

Eight of occupants were of European ancestry, and, except for one, were buried in a row.

Study of the bones showed that three were of African ancestry, two men and the 5-year-old. They were buried near the others but in a separate section, according to a diagram of the burials and the report.

It was not clear what happened to the man in grave 10.

His facial fractures were “obvious signs of violence,” said Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide.

The injuries were “not severe enough to have caused his death,” she said last week. “But it’s evidence of trauma at time of death.”

The victim might have suffered a fall, or been kicked by a horse, or assaulted. One old report alleges that John Avery, his presumed owner, could be ill-tempered. As president of the local court, he once attacked a magistrate with his cane, according to the 1679 account.

But the precise cause of the injuries is unknown. “We don’t know what’s behind that,” Owsley said. “Who done it, we don’t know.”

The coffins themselves had disintegrated, but experts could tell their shapes by the pattern of coffin nails that survived.

Besides the skeletons, little else was found in the graves. Two metal buttons, probably from a pair of pants, were found in one.

The burials dated from the 1660s to the 1690s, Griffith said.

That was the period when John and Sarah Avery and their family lived there. DNA tests have shown that four people buried in the “European” section were related to each other. But experts aren’t sure who they are.

John Avery died in 1682, aged about 50. But the anthropologists report that none of the skeletons is that of a 50-year-old male. “So that sort of rules him out,” Griffith said.

Meanwhile, an inventory of Avery’s estate after his death mentions two slaves, together worth 6,000 pounds of tobacco. Griffith said that the two men buried in the “African” section could well be those slaves.

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Two slaves are included in the property inventory, along with livestock, tools, and furniture. Their names are not listed.

The skeletons were removed from the site in 2014 and taken to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where they remain, for analysis.

Evidence of hardship was clear. Teeth were in bad condition. People had numerous cavities, abscesses, and missing molars. A middle-aged woman, who stood about 4-foot-11f, had lost all but six teeth.

At the Smithsonian, Owsley, the anthropologist, put one loose tooth found at the site under a microscope and spotted telltale marks left by the tool that had been used to pull it.

“You see their tooth problems . . . you’d think, well, they ought to pluck them,” Owsley said. “Sure enough, they do.”

Griffith said the men also wore grooves in their front teeth by gripping their pipes. Some had two “pipe facets.” One man had four.

“I think they had the pipe in their mouth all day,” he said. “Whether it was lit or not, it becomes sort of habit.”

He said the Avery’s Rest project had to be done or the story might have been lost.

“If it weren’t for the archaeological society, the volunteer effort, Avery’s Rest would be either still be sitting there or gone,” he said. “The burials may or may not have been discovered, depending on what kind of development went on there.”

They might have ended up under a concrete slab or a building.

“I said, ‘Well, this is important. This needs to be done,’ ” he said. “So that’s what I wanted to do.”

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