Sacred ground: Archeological dig sifts 150-year-old Quaker burial site

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DAMASCUS, Ohio – In a quiet patch of land just south of U.S. Route 62 in Damascus lie the interred remains of many Quakers, people who lived and died at least 150 years ago. When members of Damascus Friends Church decided to expand their church building, the place, known as the Lot 17 Burying Ground, was directly in the path of that expansion.

Wanting to handle the situation with the utmost care and respect, the church designated a representative to contact an archaeologist at Youngstown State University to investigate and study the site. Archaeologist John R. White, professor and chair of the department of sociology and anthropology, began a dig at the site March 31, 2001. The dig began with a prayer for the church forefathers and family buried there, and also for the safety and protection of the workers.

Uncovering history. White brought colleagues, students and volunteers to the site repeatedly during the spring and summer digging season. Starting with heavy equipment that removed the first, non-critical layer of soil, his team scraped the easternmost section of the burying ground down about 3 feet. Since, as today, most burials are at the 6-foot level, this layer presented no remains nor artifacts. After that, workers took pressurized tanks filled with water and sprayed the revealed earth.

As if by magic or miracle, the graves appeared as dark outlines against the lighter neighboring soil

White explained that the phenomenon is caused by the difference between the disturbed soil (the graves) and the virgin soil surrounding them. As expected, White and his team found the graves lined up with the shoulders facing east.

The shapes indicated the six-sided coffins consistent with the time, as opposed to the four-sided caskets of today.

The team dug a grave shaft at each site. White said he has a lot of sympathy for the early grave-diggers as the site is composed of very hard clay with an iron ore deposit in the middle. With clay sides, the shafts hold water, making digging a feat after any rain.

Not much is left at the bottom of the grave shafts and workers found little more than fragments of wood, hinges and a few pieces of bone.

“Most everything is gone in a century,” White said. “Sometimes we find the long bones such as the fibias and tibias (leg bones), ulnas or radiuses (arm bones), maybe a collapsed skull and teeth.”

Detective work. As little information as that may seem to be, White and his team can usually determine the gender and age from the remains, sometimes even the cause of death. This data is matched to a partial list of the dead found in the church records. Study continues in an effort to determine the identities of each person in each grave.

To preserve the knowledge of the area, only the second Quaker burying ground to be exhumed and studied in this way, White and his team take care to label each artifact, noting its location within the grave. It is then bagged and boxed by grave number.

“Each piece is stored and numbered to correspond to the site map,” White said. This will help identify the order of the burials.

Head stones were not always used in Quaker burials and what markers may have existed are now long gone.

Unusual finds. The soil of each grave is carefully sifted by the team, turning up even the most minute clues. Joyce Steer, a member of Damascus Friends Church and the secretary of the Lot 17 Cemetery Committee, discussed some of the rather unusual finds of the team last year.

She said in one grave, workers found hundreds of tiny seeds, looking like no more than stone pebbles. The occupant was likely a 15- or 16-year-old boy and the seeds appeared to have been in his stomach, although it is not known if he died from overeating or something else entirely.

Steer said seed samples were sent to Mount Union College in Alliance, the Smithsonian Institution, Ohio State University and finally to Texas A & M.

A researcher at Texas A & M, formerly a resident of the Alliance area, determined that the seeds were likely those of blackberries, or possibly raspberries. Despite the efforts of many people, no one has been able to successfully germinate the seeds.

In another case, a man was listed in the church records as having been killed by a tree during a violent storm. Workers found a grave containing a male in a state of disruption, which may indicate he was the unfortunate man caught in the storm. Apparently, no effort was made to straighten out the body prior to burial.

“The bones were all catawampus in the grave,” Steer said. “They buried him a broken man.”

Prior to this spring, 75 bodies had been exhumed, 43 adults over age 20 at the time of death and 32 infants, children and teen-agers.

The number of children in the burying ground bespeaks of the harsh conditions and realities of the time. According to White, the children’s graves appear to be cocooned within the confines of the adult graves as if sheltering them, although that is still a theory at this point. He said further exhumation to the west may prove the theory or lead to a rethinking of it.

Dig continues. During this season’s dig, another 12 graves have been exhumed, bringing the total to 87 to date. It is believed there are 104 graves at the site.

When this church cemetery was filled – the last burial was in 1843 – members were buried at the Damascus Friends Cemetery on Valley Road, east of the church.

White originally hoped to be done with the dig by July of 2002, but the weather this year has not cooperated. He said the clay shafts fill completely with water after a hard rain and have to be pumped dry. White still hopes to finish by the end of the summer.

When the dig is complete, the remains will be re-interred at Damascus Friends Cemetery. Steer said the Damascus Garden Club received a grant from the Alliance Civic Trust and will use the money to landscape the area for the memorial and put up a flag pole.

“We have also applied for a State of Ohio historical marker for the site,” Steer said. “Hopefully, we can have a final ceremony by the end of the summer.”

Brass plaques will be installed at both the new cemetery burial and at the original site commemorating the people buried there.

For more information on the dig and its progress, the church has a Web site at www.damascusfriends.org. The site contains a diary of events of the dig as well as maps of the site.

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