(Updated) Skeletal remains hold clues to lives of early settlers in Delaware

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(Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian)

An archeological study is providing insight into some of Delaware’s earliest colonial settlers.

The discovery of numerous artifacts as well as 11 well-preserved burial sites dating to the late 1600s fills in gaps in Delaware’s early history, telling the story of the colonists’ physical health, diet, family life, and how they made their living, archaeologists, and historians reported on Wednesday.

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Three of the burials, one a young child, were determined to be of African descent, constituting the earliest known discovery of remains of slaves in Delaware.

The state will now collaborate on a major research project to attempt to identify each of the individuals buried at the site. Future plans will be developed to exhibit the findings, possibly to include facial reconstructions based on the skeletal remains.

The site of the discoveries is Avery’s Rest, a 17th-century plantation located in what is now West Rehoboth. The original owner was John Avery, who once served as a judge in nearby Lewes in the period just after the colony transitioned from Dutch to English rule.

A Washington Post story noted that the remains offered a look into the difficult lives at the plantation that is tied to the growing of tobacco. By the time of the American Revolution, tobacco had declined in importance as a crop.

“This is a story of the life and death of some of the earliest Europeans and Africans to occupy what is now the state of Delaware,” said Daniel Griffith of the Archeological Society of Delaware. “Their interactions with neighbors, colonial governments and global connections with Europe, Africa, and the British colonies, is revealed to us through archaeology and archival research. The story is even more significant as its telling would not have been possible without the volunteer efforts of many members of the Archaeological Society of Delaware.”

Avery’s Rest Final Report 08.21.17

The first burials were discovered in 2012. This triggered a legal process under the state’s Unmarked Human Remains Act, which identified three known descendants of John Avery.

With their consent, the state engaged Dr. Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution for his expertise in the field of physical anthropology and his well-known work with early colonial settlements at Jamestown, Va. and St. Mary’s City, Md. The remains were excavated and transferred to the Smithsonian for advanced DNA testing under Owsley’s supervision.

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed that three of the burials were people of African descent and eight were of European descent. Coupled with research from the historical record, Owsley further determined that the European burials may be the extended family of John Avery and his wife Sarah, including their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. However, genetic markers alone are not sufficient to determine the exact identities of the remains.

“This archeological discovery is truly exciting, and reminds us that the ancestors will always make themselves known to us if we listen. The stories of their sacrifices in life and remembrances in death are truly ‘written in bone’ for us to interpret, understand and honor,” said Angela Winand, head of the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage and Diversity Programs at the Delaware Historical Society. “Long ago, these individuals formed a community at Avery’s Rest upon which our present and our future as a culturally diverse state rests. I look forward to learning more about this discovery from our partners at ASD and the Smithsonian, and sharing these stories with all of Delaware’s citizens, through the work of the Mitchell Center.”

The remains will stay in the custody of the Smithsonian, where they will assist ongoing work to trace the genetic and anthropological history of the early colonial settlers of the Chesapeake region. Delaware law strictly forbids the public display of human remains.

The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs will continue to work with the Delaware Historical Society, the Archeological Society of Delaware and others to craft a plan to exhibit the Avery’s Rest findings for the public.

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