Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky knew her team was lucky.
It’s one thing to uncover an archaeological site that’s 300 years old. It’s a completely different matter when that site has remained almost entirely preserved.
Researchers unearthed a slave quarters site at Newtowne Neck State Park, which was once the site of a Jesuit plantation in southern Maryland. The slave quarters may date back to the 1700s. The site may also have a connection to Georgetown University’s history of slave trading.
“This is a very rare and exciting discovery because we don’t have any similar types of sites,” Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist for the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration told CNN. “There was so much potential for this to be erased but, by some sort of miracle, we still have evidence of their homes and lives after so many years.”
Archaeologists from the highway administration, as well as researchers from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, made the discovery earlier this month. The team first began digging at the site on October 19, according to the highway administration.
“The Jesuits were prolific in their record keeping, but very little survived on the enslaved African Americans who worked the fields and served the Catholic Church,” Schablitsky said in a news release. “If there was ever a place in Maryland that holds the story of diverse cultures converging to find religious freedom in an environment of conflict, sacrifice and survival, it is here.”
While the slave quarters were buried underground, the soil around it had not been eroded, which helped preserve the site, Schablitsky told CNN.
“It’s complicated geology, but the land had not been plowed for a while,” she said. “If the soil had been plowed, then it would have buried the site deeper and deeper. But the soil remained intact.”
Researchers have already found a 1740 George II coin at the site. They plan to share any other discovered artifacts with the public.
What we already know about the enslaved people who lived here
Archaeologists weren’t the only people at the site when they first began digging. They were joined by descendants of some the 314 enslaved people who were sold by Georgetown University in a major slave sale in 1838 (slave records only count 272 slaves because children were excluded from this tally).
The university had sold the slaves in order to cover some of its debts. The sale was incremental in supporting the school, which had an endowment of over $1.5 billion in 2015.
“It’s very emotional, mentally and physically,” Rev. Dante Eubanks, a pastor at the New Covenant Christian Worship Center, told CNN. “It’s almost like you’re overwhelmed with such a spiritual connection.”
Eubanks, along with a priest from the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, led a prayer and a blessing on the site before archaeologists began digging.
When archaeologists first discovered the slave quarters, they invited members of the GU 272 Descendants Association to come to the site.
“These are their ancestors,” Schablitsky told CNN. “It’s important for them to be a part of this. They’re going to come in with a perspective, where they’ll be asking questions that we wouldn’t even be thinking of.”
Eubanks, who was there with a handful of other descendants, called the experience “an honor.”
“It’s very surreal and very moving to be able to walk the land where your potential ancestors worked, lived, endured and also survived,” Eubanks said. “It gives a whole different perspective to everything.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect year when a major slave trade took place by Georgetown University. It was 1838. It also clarifies why the Rev. Eubanks was there; it was to bless the site before archaeologists began digging.
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