A three-part report titled “Artifacts and Commingled Skeletal Remains from a Well on the Medical College of Virginia Campus” is available for download from the Virginia Commonwealth University Scholars Compass, a publishing platform administered by VCU Libraries. Abstracts and links to the full report are below.
In April 1994, archaeologists from VCU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department assisted with the recovery of bones and artifacts from a 19th-century well on the VCU Medical College of Virginia Campus in Richmond. The well was discovered during construction of a new building in the northeast corner of what was previously known as Academy Square. The unexpected discovery led to partial removal of the well and its contents. Normally, archaeologists carefully excavate each soil stratum by hand and in sequence, bagging and numbering the content of each layer separately so that a chronology and understanding of the discovered materials (e.g., domestic trash, architectural renovation) can be recorded. In this circumstance, these procedures were not followed. VCU archaeologists participated in initial site clean-up and photography. They excavated about one foot into the well fill, at which point they paused their investigation after encountering possible skin, hair, and human bone, and an odor reminiscent of formalin. The archaeologists were then ordered to stand outside the barricaded well area while the feature was excavated by construction employees using a backhoe. The archaeologists were given one weekend to recover artifacts and bones from the disturbed soil deposited outside the barricade.
Chief Archaeologist Dr. Daniel L. Mouer recalls that the well was machine dug to a depth of 30 feet, at which point the soil was waterlogged. He estimates that the well probably extended for another 10 feet. It was an unremarkable 19th-century brick-lined well, slightly larger than normal domestic wells. The archaeologists were unable to make measured drawings of the feature due to limitations in time. Analysis of other materials recovered from the well dates the feature to the mid-19th century.
The objectives of this analysis included identification and documentation of the bones and artifacts from the well, establishing the temporal context and interpreting the relationship of the materials to the site’s use and history as an early medical school in the city of Richmond. This report has three main sections: a review of the archival history of the school as it related to the use of the well, a description of the artifact assemblage and documentation of the human remains.
Anatomical and Surgical Training in 19th-Century Richmond
This report presents an examination of anatomical training in Richmond during the 19th century, the time period suggested by the examination of well contents and archival analysis. This includes an overview of the origins of the VCU School of Medicine from its 1838 founding as the Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College in a rented building on the southwestern corner of 19th and Main streets. Training moved to the Egyptian Building in 1844. After dissolving ties with Hampden-Sydney and receiving a charter from the Virginia General Assembly, the reorganized school became the Medical College of Virginia in 1854.
Archival research provides insight into early medical education practices, with particular focus on the procurement and use of cadavers. Nineteenth-century medical educators endeavored to provide early medical students an opportunity to receive instruction that required the utilization of cadavers. Dissection was important to medical educators, however medical institutions had no legal method for obtaining cadavers. This juxtaposition, coupled with the vulnerability of Richmond’s relatively large indigent, enslaved and incarcerated populations led to the establishment of an illicit market, rife with grave robbers, often called “resurrectionists.” To deal with the challenge of the disposal of human remains, the medical school faculty identified a sink or well for use sometime between 1848 and 1856. Although it would be difficult to prove conclusively that this is that well, it is notable that an 1861 entry in the Dean’s Account Book suggests evidence of the sealing of one well and the digging of another. In addition to exploring how anatomical materials were obtained, the report describes the role various anatomy instructors (“demonstrators”) served during the early years of the fledgling medical department that would become the Medical College of Virginia.
Artifact Collection from Archaeological Site 44HE814
The current report presents documentation and analysis of faunal remains and the examination of other artifacts (i.e., domestic, construction and medical refuse from that historical period) retrieved from the well discovered during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building in 1994.
The well contained 423 fragmented artifacts and faunal remains. The earliest datable objects are two circa 1780-1810 Chinese porcelain teaware “sherds” (a historic pottery fragment), but the item with the most recent date from the well contents is a whiteware platter sherd, dated to circa 1840-1850. The refuse repository was likely used episodically, and contained a range of artifacts including fowl, cow, dog and cat bones in addition to medical supplies (e.g., bone scalpels, test tubes, etc.) and construction waste (e.g., brick rubble, window glass, etc.). Other artifacts discovered include fragments of cotton, felt and linen/linsey-woolsey garments, and leather shoes. One of the shoes recovered was cheaply manufactured and was likely worn by an enslaved African, according to Colonial Williamsburg’s master cordwainer. This shoe was likely made in Richmond by an individual of Bavarian descent and has been deemed a remarkable discovery.
Human Skeletal Remains from Archaeological Site 44HE814
Human bones from the well at VCU’s MCV Campus in Richmond were analyzed at the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology. The study involved identification and comprehensive sorting of the commingled bones, re-association of bones and systematic collection of osteological data for each bone and set of associated skeletal remains. Although the removal process resulted in a completely comingled set of remains, bone by bone comparisons for points of congruence, notably similarities in relative size and shape, color, distinguishing pathology, preservation, and matching joint articulations, made it possible to determine whether entire bodies, amputated limbs or isolated bones were present. Each bone and/or set of remains was inventoried and evaluated for age and sex, evidence of trauma and pathological features indicative of disease or arthritic changes.
In summary, based on bone counts for the total series, a minimum of 44 adults (individuals 15 years and older) and nine children (ages 14 years and younger) are represented. This number is based on the high bone count for adult right tibiae and right femora for children, plus a newborn represented by two ribs only. Most adult remains were males aged 35 years or older. Results suggest that the recovered deposit represents at least 19 fairly intact bodies plus partial remains of an additional 34 individuals. Some of the bones show evidence of perimortem trauma and disease. Perimortem injuries are evident in four crania. Disease processes, characterized by changes due to prolonged, chronic periostitis; widespread, resorptive bone loss; and lytic destruction are evident in the remains of children and adults. Fifty bones or bone “sets” comprising 34 cranial and mandibular elements (approximately 18 percent) and 42 postcranial bones (approximately 7.5 percent) show evidence of intentional sectioning consistent with training in surgical procedures including amputations and autopsy. In most cases, the number and pattern of cuts and the absence of pathology on the bones provides evidence for surgical training and dissection.
Metric data were obtained from the better-preserved cranial and postcranial remains recovered from the well. The cranial analysis estimates ancestry and assesses variability across the bones recovered. Each cranium was compared to samples of both African and American Blacks, and both European and American Whites stratified by time into early 19th-century, late 19th-century, and 20th-century cohorts. The results infer that there are basically two groups represented in this series, individuals of African descent whose immediate ancestors were born in America and individuals, probably slaves, who were born in Africa or to parents born in Africa. One cranium is assessed as having greater similarity to Europeans. The postcranial analysis revealed that the individuals from the well at VCU are generally similar to African-Americans from the early and late 19th century. In summary, a majority of the remains are identified as African or African-American, but not exclusively.
*Note: Given the sensitivity of the images, and to demonstrate respect, the images referenced in “Artifacts and Commingled Skeletal Remains from a Well on the Medical College of Virginia Campus: Human Skeletal Remains from Archaeological Site 44HE814” can be accessed by visiting the Special Collections and Archives department at either the Tompkins-McCaw Library or the James Branch Cabell Library.
The following scholarly research and resources provide a national context to the East Marshall Street Well Project.
Medical College of Georgia
In 1989, workers renovating a Medical College of Georgia building discovered human remains and artifacts beneath the basement. The discovery and ensuing archaeological dig led to the publication of “Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training” edited by Robert L. Blakely and Judith M. Harrington. Read a review of the book by Edward T. Morman of the New York Academy of Medicine.
In 2009, after requests from faculty and staff to investigate the college’s historical role in perpetuating slavery, William and Mary established the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, described on its website as “a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the College through action or inaction.” Learn more by visiting the project’s website.
Mark Auslander, a researcher at Brandeis University, published a report in 2010 that explores Emory University’s historic landscape as a mechanism to uncover details about slavery and racial hierarchy in the antebellum south. Read the full essay.
On Oct. 16, 2014, the University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery and the university hosted the “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery” symposium. The commission is charged to “provide advice and recommendations to the President on the commemoration of the University of Virginia’s historical relationship with slavery and enslaved people.” Learn more by visiting the commission’s website.