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Archaeological discovery writes new chapter in Delaware’s early colonial history

Written on: December 13th, 2017 in Archaeology News

By Doug Denison, director of community relations, Delaware Department of State

An archaeological study years in the making has revealed a wealth of new information about some of Delaware’s earliest colonial settlers and sheds new light on what life would have been like in the region three centuries ago.

The discovery of numerous artifacts as well as 11 well-preserved burial sites dating to the late 1600s fill in gaps in Delaware’s early history, telling the story of the colonists’ physical health, diet, family life and how they made their living. Three of the burials, one a young child, were determined to be of African descent, constituting the earliest known discovery of remains of enslaved people in Delaware.

Archaeologists and volunteers working at the Avery’s Rest site.

Archaeologists and volunteers working at the Avery’s Rest site.

In cooperation with Delaware’s historical community, 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.

Burial site at Avery’s Rest.

Burial site at Avery’s Rest

“Delaware’s history is rich, fascinating and deeply personal to many of us who call this state home,” said Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “Discoveries like this help us add new sharpness to our picture of the past, and I’m deeply grateful to the passionate community of historians, scientists and archaeologists who have helped bring these new revelations to light.”

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.

“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 Archaeological Society of Delaware. “Their interactions with neighbors and colonial governments, and global connections with Europe, Africa and the British colonies, are 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.”

A pair of scissors unearthed during archaeological excavations at Avery’s Rest.

A pair of scissors unearthed during archaeological excavations at Avery’s Rest.

Designated a historically significant site in the 1970s, Avery’s Rest was slated for development in 2005 which spurred the first round of excavations and surveys at the property by the Archaeological Society of Delaware in collaboration with the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Over the next few years, archaeologists continued to work the site and branch out into neighboring parcels, uncovering artifacts and evidence of structures from the original plantation.

Pottery fragment found at Avery’s Rest.

Pottery fragment found at Avery’s Rest.

The first burials were discovered in 2012. This triggered a legal process under the state’s Unmarked Human Remains Law, 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.

“Avery’s Rest provides a rare opportunity to learn about life in the 17th century, not only through the study of buried objects and structures, but also through analyses of well-preserved human skeletal remains,” said Owsley who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “The bone and burial evidence provides an intriguing, personal look into the life stories of men, women and children on the Delaware frontier, and adds to a growing body of biological data on the varied experiences of colonist and enslaved populations in the Chesapeake region.”

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 archaeological 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 Dr. Angela Winand, head of the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage 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 the Archaeological Society of Delaware 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.

In late 2017, 200 boxes of Avery’s Rest artifacts—prepared for curation by the Archaeological Society of Delaware—were transferred to the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs which accessioned them into the collections of the State of Delaware. The division will continue to work with the Delaware Historical Society, the Archaeological Society and others to craft a plan to exhibit the Avery’s Rest findings for the public.

Key dates in the discovery and investigation of the Avery’s Rest archaeological site

–1976: Site identified by Delaware state archaeologists

–1978: Site listed in the National Register of Historic Places

–2005: Proposed development plan in the area raises concerns from the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

–2006: The state obtains landowner permission to survey the site

–2006–2008: The Archaeological Society of Delaware, with assistance from the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, carries out surveys and excavations of the part of the site to be affected by the development

–2009–2012: The Archaeological Society of Delaware continues its investigation on adjacent properties

–2010: An exhibit on findings is presented at the Rehoboth Beach Museum

–September 2012: First burials identified

–November 2012: In accordance with Delaware law, the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs publishes a notice of the discovery seeking next-of-kin. Three descendants of John Avery come forward

–2013: Next-of-kin and the property owner consent to excavation and analysis of burials. The Archaeological Society of Delaware continues investigation and identifies a total of 11 burials

–September 2014: Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, Smithsonian, Archaeological Society of Delaware and next-of-kin for Smithsonian excavation of the burials, with division oversight. Remains are transferred to the Smithsonian

–March 2017: Smithsonian confirms the age, gender and ethnicity of the burials

–August 2017: Final report completed by the Smithsonian

For recent press accounts on Avery’s Rest, go to the following:

Unearthing the past
Cape Gazette, Lewes, Del.—Dec. 11, 2017

Rehoboth archaeological discovery holds clues to Delaware’s earliest settlers, slaves
Delaware Public Media, Dover, Del.—Dec. 8, 2017

Remains Tell Stories of Delaware’s Earliest Enslaved
Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.—Dec. 8, 2017

Burial sites of slaves discovered in West Rehoboth excavation
WXDE-FM, Milford, Del.—Dec. 7, 2017

Major archaeological discovery could rewrite Delaware’s history
WMDT TV, Salisbury, Md.—Dec. 7, 2017

Revolutionary Archaeological Discovery Made in West Rehoboth
WBOC TV, Salisbury, Md.—Dec 7, 2017

Archaeological discovery to ‘write new chapter’ in state history
Delaware State News, Dover, Del.—Dec 6, 2017

Archaeologist Uncovers the Graves of Delaware’s Earliest Settlers and Their Slaves
WCAU TV, Philadelphia, Pa.—Dec. 6, 2017

Archaeologists dig up new clues about Delaware’s past at a downstate plantation
WDEL Radio, Wilmington, Del.—Dec. 6, 2017

Avery’s Rest burial sites offer window into 17th century living
Cape Gazette, Lewes, Del.—Dec. 6, 2017

Burial site from 17th century found in Rehoboth Beach
WPVI TV, Philadelphia, Pa.—Dec. 6, 2017

Colonial Cemetery Excavated in Delaware
Archaeology Magazine, New York, N.Y.—Dec. 6, 2017

Delaware archaeologists find 17th century remains
Newsworks, WHYY TV, Wilmington, Del.—Dec. 6, 2017

Rehoboth burials reveal stories of Delaware’s earliest settlers
News Journal, Wilmington, Del.—Dec. 6, 2017

Skeletal remains hold clues to lives of early settlers in Delaware
Delaware Business Now, Newark, Del.—Dec. 6, 2017

An archaeological dig unearths one of the earliest slave remains in Delaware
Washington Post, D.C.—Dec. 5, 2017

Rehoboth discovery may change Delaware history
News Journal, Wilmington, Del.—Dec. 5, 2017


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