Guest post by Carla Killough McClafferty

I call my books “Biography Plus” because I write about the lives of people, but I also add science and art whenever possible. You might be surprised how often these topics go together.

Cover of Buried Lives by Carla McClafferty.
“An enlightening presentation on slavery in the late 1700s.”
Booklist Starred Review, Reviewed in The Wall Street Journal.

Even my new book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon contains science.  The book illuminates the complex relationships between Washington and the enslaved community.  In it I highlight the lives of six, specific enslaved people who lived and worked at Mount Vernon.  I feature William Lee, Washington’s valet who was with the General throughout eight years of war; Christopher Sheels, the young man who replaced William Lee; Caroline Branham, seamstress and housemaid; Peter Hardiman, Caroline’s husband who ran Washington’s stable; Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s lady’s maid; and Hercules, the chief cook in the President’s House in Philadelphia. 

Science – Archeological Dig

The majority of the book focuses on biographies of these six individuals.  The science angle of Buried Lives comes in through the archaeological dig currently taking place at Mount Vernon. 

Flowers mark the grave sites at Mt. Vernon's slave cemetary.
Mt. Vernon’s Slave Cemetery: Bouquets mark individual grave shafts. Facing SE.

For more than one hundred years, enslaved people were buried in unmarked graves in what was called the “Slave Cemetery” on maps of Mount Vernon.  In 2014, archaeologists at Mount Vernon began a multi-year archaeological dig in this cemetery to learn more. No human remains will ever be disturbed during the archeological study of the cemetery.     

Answering 3 Historical Questions

They set out to answer three questions: 

Where are the cemetery boundaries?

How many people are buried there?

How are the burials arranged within the cemetery? 

As per the usual practice of an archeological dig, the archeologists started with a GPS survey.  The area is mapped out in a precise five feet by five feet grid pattern.  To prepare an area of the dig, strings mark off each five-foot square grid.    

Working on one grid at a time, the first step is to clear away leaves and the top layer of soil. It is backbreaking work, as shovel after shovel reveals tree roots that must be cut away.  Each shovel and trowel full of dirt is put in a bucket, and then poured onto a sifting screen that has quarter-inch holes.  Any artifacts that might be in the dirt are left on the screen while the dirt falls to the ground.  The archaeologists look over every item left on the screen.  Rocks are discarded and everything else that might have historical significance is bagged and tagged in such a way as to know exactly which bag was taken from each grid.

Mt. Vernon’s Slave Cemetery: Michael Boone excavated 738B. Facing SW.

Once all the dirt has been processed for the first layer, they go back to the grid and scrape another thin layer of soil away.  Every step is meticulously repeated.  As layer after layer of soil is scrapped off, the archaeologists frequently check and record the color of the soil.  As they dig deeper within the grid, knife-sharp edges are maintained.

When the top six to eight inches of soil has been removed, the sub soil is clear to see.  If a grave is present within the five-foot square it is very easy to see the oval shape.  The soil of the grave shaft looks like a different color from the undisturbed sub soil surrounding it.  The reason for this is that when a hole is dug out of the ground as with a grave (or to plant a tree or anything else) the soil is tossed aside.  When that dirt goes back in the hole it is mixed up with grass etc. and never looks the same as the undisturbed sub soil ever again.  If a portion of a grave is revealed within a grid, they move to the next grid and the work begins all over again until the entire grave can be seen.

The same procedures are followed one grid after the other.  Slowly, graves are revealed and their exact locations are recorded.  

Author Carla Mcclafferty participating in the archeological dig at Mt. Vernon's Slave Cemetary.
Author Carla Mcclafferty participating in the archeological dig at Mt. Vernon’s Slave Cemetery.

But archaeologists don’t spend all their time actively working at the dig site.  Most days are spent in the laboratory where the bags of material collected from the cemetery site are washed, examined, and filed.   This dig site has uncovered many Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years.  This indicates that the area was likely used as a work area where stone tools such as arrowheads were made. 

At the end of each dig season-June through October-all the graves that have been painstakingly uncovered during the season are carefully covered again.  By the end of the 2018 dig season, 80 graves have been located in Mount Vernon’s cemetery for the enslaved. 

I believe that by adding the archaeological dig chapter to Buried Lives it gives the book another level of interest.  By the time readers reach this chapter near the end, they will have a better understanding of the lives of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon. It is my hope this knowledge will make the dig to reveal the presence of so many unmarked graves even more meaningful. 

Once again, modern science allows us a better understanding of the people who have gone before us.  

Carla Killough McClafferty is an award-winning author of nonfiction books and public speaker.  She has presented programming for audiences of all ages at a variety of national and international venues.  She has appeared on CSpan 2 Book TV, Ford Book Talk Series at Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, the American Library Association national conference, the National Science Teachers Association national conference, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Consulate in Marseille, France.  She presents teacher professional development workshops, author visits and interactive video-conferences with schools all over the nation. 

Her books have been recognized for excellence in various ways including starred reviews, and being chosen as the Bank Street Best Books of the Year, IRA Children’s Book Award Winner, NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book, ALA Best Books for Young Adult List, ALA Amelia Bloomer Project List, NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book, Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the CBC, National Council of Social Studies/Children’s Book Council Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Cooperative Children’s Book Council (CCBC) Choices list, Arkansas’s 2008-2009 Charlie May Simon Reading List, and more.   

 Her books include:

  • Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • A Short Biography of George Washington
  • Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment
  • Tech Titans
  • The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
  • In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry
  • Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium
  • The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray

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