2016 North Foundation Underpinning

In summer of 2015 Structural Engineer John Matteo gave the Foundation a warning:  the deteriorating north corner foundation needed to be addressed within two years. With the help of many foundations and individuals, we raised $70,000 to underpin the foundation and to repair deteriorated floor framing.   The underpinning project exposed unexpected finds— three unearthed burials, the skeleton of one unknown person, and prehistoric projectiles to name a few— all are highlighted in the story below.

We are forever grateful to our donors that made this crucial structural repair possible.

  • The Morgan Foundation

  • The Richard Gwathmey and Caroline T. Gwathmey Memorial Trust

  • The Beirne Carter Foundation

  • Gayle and Randy Randol

  • Countless donations from individuals

This model shows the 1829 expansion of the church replacing the more narrow 1772 addition. Both were built over existing graves. Project area is circled in red.

The underpinning project, completed in November 2016, replaced the failing foundation along the northeast wall of the church. This wall, part of an 1829 addition, was the second church expansion, widening and lengthening an earlier 1772 addition. Both additions were built over existing graves in the churchyard. Knowing that there was a high probability of encountering human remains, James River Institute for Archeology, Inc. (JRIA), played a critical role in monitoring the excavation work around the failing foundation.

A view of the burial discovered during the project. The arrow points to a clay pipe stem, perhaps discarded by the grave digger.

Photograph shows the placement of the burials and evidence of post holes. The position of the post alongside Burial 2 strongly suggests the grave was marked by a wooden grave rail.

Removing a preliminary layer of dirt exposed the brick foundation, and immediately the past was revealed. Stains in the dirt showed the presence of three burials, oriented on an east-west axis, as is the church and other burials in the graveyard. Fortunately, two of the burials did not need to be disturbed to complete the project. They were measured, mapped, documented and ‘abandoned in place,’ i.e. covered over with dirt. The third burial, however, was directly in the way of the new foundation and needed to be moved.

On further examination, it became apparent that this burial had ALREADY been disturbed during work completed in the 1960s. At that time, the grave was truncated down to the skeleton, which was then mortared into the wall up to the mid-chest area. The exposed remains were excavated and carefully cleaned by JRIA before being sent to the Smithsonian Institute for analysis.

Despite the disintegration of the wooden coffin the nails remain in place.

Dr. Douglas Owsley and his colleagues at the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute tell us that we uncovered a white male, between 23 and 25 years old. He was buried in a flat-lidded, hexagonal coffin constructed with at least some machine-cut, machine-headed nails, indicating an earliest possible burial date of 1805.

The man was buried in typical English grave clothes: a shirt, sheet and cap with a jaw strap pinned to the clothes by a series of copper alloy straight pins, several of which were recovered at the burial. He was also wearing a copper alloy necklace - his neck, shoulder, and upper collarbone were stained - and one complete link of the chain was recovered. Using all available evidence we now know that this young man was buried between 1805 and 1829. While we may never know his name, we can deduce that he was a man of some status. Burial with jewelry - or any type of grave good - is rare in English and colonial customs; what’s more chain link necklaces were expensive. He also had severe tooth decay, indicating a high sugar diet, a luxury few could afford. His vertebrae indicated extensive horseback riding versus heavy lifting, or a life of physical labor. Lastly, the light weight of the bones showed evidence of an extended illness prior to death.

Grave rails, or dead boards, crafted of wood and carved with the names and dates of the deceased, were placed alongside graves.

The excavation also uncovered an exciting and unexpected find: evidence of wooden grave rail markers. Staining in the dirt revealed cylindrical post “molds.” Post molds running parallel to one of the burials strongly indicate that grave rails were used. Grave rails, also known as dead boards, were comprised of two wooden posts driven directly into the ground, supporting a beam or a board carved with the name of the deceased. Knowledge of their existence is a huge boon for interpreting the history of the graveyard.

Over 300 prehistoric Native American artifacts were also removed, mostly stone flakes, with one projectile point dating to the Middle Archaic period (6500 to 3000 BC). No ceramics were found. Interestingly the hill, that later became Church Hill, was known as Indian Town or Indian Town Hill. The remains will be studied for five years, at which time they will be returned to be re-interred.


The Work

The Situation

Read the structural analysis by by John A. Matteo, P.E., FAAR Principal, 1200 Architectural Engineers PLLC.