Athens, Ga. — Following the guidance of the State Archaeologist’s Office, the University of Georgia has reinterred the remains of individuals discovered during the construction of the Baldwin Hall expansion. The reburial will be commemorated with a ceremony at the gravesite at Oconee Hill Cemetery on Monday, March 20.
In total, 105 gravesites were identified. The remains were discovered in November 2015 during work on the expansion of Baldwin Hall, an academic building adjacent to the Old Athens Cemetery, which operated as a public cemetery throughout the 19th century. University planners did not anticipate discovering remains on the site.
Construction was delayed from November 2015 until February 2016, while archaeologists from Southeastern Archaeological Services Inc. and bioarchaeologists with the UGA Department of Anthropology worked to exhume the remains. Exploration and exhumation continued through the end of January 2017.
To clarify, archaeologists did not discover 105 bodies. In fact, only 30 gravesites contained sufficient remains to allow for DNA testing. Some sites were empty, indicating that individuals could have been moved previously. In addition, more than a century has passed, so most of the graves contained only fragments of skeletal remains. In some instances, only “human essence” was found-soil that is presumed to have biological material from the naturally decomposed remains of these individuals.
All of the exhumed materials were meticulously catalogued, placed in individual funeral boxes and reinterred. The site of their reinterment at Oconee Hill Cemetery will be marked by a stately granite marker that provides an account of their discovery and reinterment. Oconee Hill will provide for perpetual care of the site. Senior university representatives have held numerous meetings and conversations with leaders throughout the community to discuss the reinterment of these remains at Oconee Hill Cemetery.
While early onsite examination led archaeologists initially to think that the individuals were most likely of European descent, the DNA results revealed that the vast majority of the remains sufficient for analysis were of African-Americans.
Dr. Laurie Reitsema, an assistant professor in the university’s anthropology department, led a team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates in conducting research of the remains discovered at the site to learn basic aspects of these people’s lives, including documenting their age, sex, health, development and other characteristics. She will share her findings with the public in a research presentation later this spring.
Throughout this entire process, the university has strictly followed the guidance of the State Archaeologist’s Office to reinter the remains individually, in a location close to the original burial site. Oconee Hill is the closest location. The university has been informed by the State Archaeologist’s Office that this is the most appropriate approach, a fact confirmed in a March 6, 2017, letter to University of Georgia President Jere W. Morehead from State Archaeologist Dr. Bryan Tucker. Tucker states:
- “We … recommended reinterment in separate containers as a group and arranged as closely as possible to the original burial configuration so as to not inadvertently separate potential family members.”
- “Additionally (the State Archaeologist’s Office) always suggests reinterment as close to the original burial location as possible. Oconee Hills (sic) Cemetery fulfills these two conditions as it is in geographic proximity to the original burial location, and has space in which to reinter as a group.”
- “Throughout the investigation process, the University of Georgia … has fully complied with the requirements” (for reinterment).
Oconee Hill Cemetery is the successor to Old Athens Cemetery. These remains therefore have been reinterred in a cemetery historically and geographically as close as possible to their original resting place. Based on historical accounts, both Old Athens Cemetery and Oconee Hill Cemetery were bi-racial from their inception. Oconee Hill Cemetery continues to inter individuals of all races and faiths.
The ceremony will be held at 3 p.m. on March 20. Speakers include the following community leaders: the Honorable Judge Steve C. Jones of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia; the Rev. Dr. Winfred M. Hope of Ebenezer Baptist Church, West; and UGA President Jere W. Morehead. Dr. Gregory S. Broughton of the UGA School of Music will provide a vocal tribute.
“We have taken and continue to take the necessary steps to ensure that the reinterment of these men, women and children is conducted with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” said Greg Trevor, UGA executive director of media communications. “This has been our primary concern and commitment from the very first discovery at the Baldwin construction site, and we have never wavered in our resolve.
About the Baldwin Hall Project
The Baldwin Hall project will provide technology-enabled active learning classrooms; space for graduate teaching assistants to hold office hours with undergraduate students; and common areas for faculty, staff, students and alumni to convene for academic discussions, presentations and events. The project also will improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
Baldwin Hall houses the School of Public and International Affairs as well as the departments of sociology and anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
Dedication of the expanded Baldwin Hall is planned for June 13.