Archaeologist Uncovers the Graves of Delaware's Earliest Settlers and Their Slaves

An archaeologist has uncovered the graves of some of Delaware's earliest settlers, giving modern Americans a new glimpse into what life was like before the colonies were founded.

The discoveries made at a former plantation known as Avery's Rest include 11 preserved burial sites dating back to the 1600s. Three belong to Africans, including one young child. They are the state's earliest known grave site of enslaved people in Delaware.

“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,” Daniel Griffith, the archaeologist credited with these discoveries, said. “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."

Avery West was a 17th Century plantation near modern day West Rehoboth. The original owner was John Avery, a judge who lived in nearby Lewes just after the colony switched from Dutch to English rule. 

Unmarked graves were found there in 2014. The remains were examined by experts at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Bone and DNA analysis confirmed eight people of European descent were buried at the site sometime between 1665 and 1695. The three Africans were buried separately. Two were likely slaves. The third was a 5-year-old child.

Archaeologists and historians say the discovery could push the boundaries of what's known about early settlers on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“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,” Dr. Owsley, who leads the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History said.

He added that bones and burial evidence provides a "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.”

Delaware law prohibits the public display of human remains. The Smithsonian will retain the artifacts for ongoing genetic and anthropological testing.

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