During January 2011, Dr. Shannon Dawdy of the University of Chicago and archaeologist D. Ryan Gray, then a graduate student at U of C, were contacted by a property owner concerned that development of a property on the block formerly occupied by the St. Peter Street Cemetery would be impacted by proposed construction. There was a good reason for this concern, as human remains had previously been discovered on the block on at least two occasions. An initial assessment of the rear courtyard of the property was done through the excavation of a single test unit by Gray, which confirmed that human remains were present in deeply buried levels at the site. After the first coffin was located, excavations were halted (and the excavation backfilled) so that the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office could be consulted.
After discussion, it was agreed that archaeologists would be provided with the opportunity to remove human remains in advance of the proposed construction at the site and that further subsurface disturbance would be coordinated with archaeologists to ensure that the least possible impact to those remains would take place. The site technically falls under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Unmarked Human Burial Sites Preservation Act (R. S. 8:671-681) and the Louisiana Historic Cemetery Preservation Act (R.S. 25:931-943), which indicate that, by virtue of still containing human remains, the location is considered a cemetery. However, given that this particular location was on private property, that many other former cemeteries on private properties in urban areas containing graves have been developed without regard for those remains, and that the property owner had made a good faith effort at addressing appropriate state laws regarding burials, it was agreed that that exhumation of human remains should be allowed to proceed, provided that avoidance of them was not possible, and that certain guidelines were followed. A number of stipulations were put forward to guide the removal process and were outlined in a permit granted to the archaeology team:
1.) All exhumations of human remains would be performed under the supervision of a qualified forensic anthropologist (with Mary Manhein and the LSU FACES Laboratory being agreed as the appropriate parties for this process).
2.) In cases in which the burial was itself of a complete individual, the entire individual would be removed.
3.) Only burials that might be directly impacted by construction should be removed.
4.) All burials would be analyzed by qualified experts, and, after the analysis was complete, would be re-interred in an appropriate and recognized cemetery.
Earth Search, Inc., a New Orleans-based CRM firm operated by Dr. Jill-Karen Yakubik, would join lead archaeologist Gray and the LSU Faces forensics team in the excavations. Dr. Dawdy was unable to participate in the next phase of investigations because of previous obligations. An area measuring 3 m grid north/south by 6 m grid east/west was excavated to the level at which burials occurred, in stages running from west to east. A further 3 m x 1 m area was excavated to a shallower depth, as the depth of the planned swimming pool construction was anticipated to be less in its eastern section. The excavated area was located contiguous to the previous test unit but was situated so as not to overlap the coffin burial identified within it, as this burial extended beneath the adjacent property’s wall. Eventually, 20 additional burials were located within the excavated area, though only 13 (representing a minimum of 15 individuals) were removed. The remainder of the burials were located either at a greater depth than would be impacted by the proposed construction, or extended into the walls of the excavated area in such a way that they could be avoided. This effort was not exhaustive, in that it is likely that additional burials were located at a still greater depth; however, these were not removed in the investigations described here, as it was assumed that they would be protected by the poured concrete of a pool planned for the site. In addition, numerous fragments of isolated and/or disarticulated human bone were recovered during these investigations.
The St. Peter Street Cemetery has been ‘discovered’ on at least two other occasions prior to the 2011 excavations. According to an article in the Times-Picayune of November 11, 1972, an unnamed female bottle hunter discovered coffins while digging in a construction site at the corner of Burgundy and Toulouse streets. This is the location of the Maison Dupuy Hotel, a development that occupies a significant portion of the block. Little information is given about the coffins, except to note that they were located beneath two different groups of brick foundations. Five coffins are noted, including one surmised to belong to an infant because of its small size. The newspaper account goes on to describe the bones and samples of wood from the coffins being turned over to the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office. I contacted the coroner’s office in March 2015, to see if they might have any records of this, but there appears to be no documents or notes relating to the case.
In the spring of 1984, archaeologists were informed that, during construction on the block bounded by Toulouse, Burgundy, St. Peter, and North Rampart Streets, human remains had been disturbed. Descriptions mentioned hundreds of coffins being uncovered and destroyed, and people taking skulls off-site as souvenirs. After somewhat tense negotiations between the developer, the Division of Archaeology, the City Attorney, and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, archaeologists from Louisiana State University were allowed to salvage only those remains exposed by or impacted by construction (Owsley et al. 1985). A total of thirty-two burials in various degrees of intactness were excavated, along with accompanying coffins, some grave goods, and surrounding artifacts. Typically, coffins were simple but well-preserved, consisting of tapered cypress boxes oriented to parallel the street grid. Few artifacts were found with any of the remains, though a rosary and suite of religious medals was a dramatic exception. Pollen grains found in one coffin were suggested to indicate that flowers had been buried with that individual.
At the time, the human remains recovered represented the first archaeological examination of the osteobiology of Louisiana’s residents of the eighteenth century. The individuals represented in the burial population appeared to include people of European, African, Native, and mixed descent, with the majority of them likely representing enslaved Africans. Of the burials identified, 26 were identified as adults (over 15 years old), as well as two children, one infant, and three burials with no bones preserved. Pathologies in the bones represent markers of both dietary and muscular stressors, including bone hypertrophy and degenerative changes associated with heavy, repeated physical labor and strain.