The penitentiary burials

Local archaeologist Ellen Chapman recently completed a useful dissertation at the College of William and Mary titled “Buried Beneath the River City: Investigating an Archaeological Landscape and its Community Value in Richmond, Virginia.” In it, she detailed the archaeological recovery of a number of burials at the state penitentiary grounds. The penitentiary was built in 1800 above the city’s western riverfront. After it closed in 1990, its grounds were purchased by the Ethyl Corporation which prompted archaeological testing and recovery. There, D. Katharine Beidleman excavated more than one hundred burials outside the old penitentiary walls.

Beidleman’s findings were curious. They apparently dated to the 1870s and 1880s, and they included women and children. The story trails off here. The remains were sent to the Smithsonian, and final reports were never filed.

About four years ago Ellen got involved with the Department of Historic Resources to see what was going on with the remains. RVA Archaeology and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project joined forces with Ellen this week to try to move the project forward. She is calling for public engagement, starting with the survey below. Great to see this back on the radar. Additional information can be found in Dale Brumfield’s 2017 book, Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History.

Ellen’s survey is here:

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