Plan view feature 288 from PG64

Plan-view drawing of European burial near the manor house, 1975

European Graves

Flowerdew Hundred’s archaeology has revealed much about daily life in 17th-century Virginia, but four features in particular have given archaeologists a glimpse of the realities of death in the early colony. While most archaeological studies focus on people indirectly through the material items they used and discarded, human burials give researchers the opportunity to study past people directly. Mortuary analysis can reveal race, sex, disease, diet, and other physiological characteristics, whereas others archaeological interpretations reveal political, religious, economic and other socially-oriented narratives.    

Coffin Nails

Coffin nails, iron with wood adhering, ca. 1618-1650

Three European graves discovered in the garden plot of the early manor house (ca. 1618-1650)  have been studied by archaeologists and anthropologists from the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and the Smithsonian Institution. One burial, which some have interpreted to be the grave of Abraham Peirsey (Flowerdew Hundred’s owner, 1624-1628), has received significant attention for its elaborate interment. Buried in a gable-ended coffin, with a ground cover of white oyster shell, and marked by wooden “grave rails,” this burial represents an atypical example of grave marking and care, suggesting a higher status individual. Archaeologists have identified this individual as a European male between the ages of 40 and 45.

Burial fill shells

Fossilized burial fill shells from "Peirsey’s Grave," ca. 1618-1650

Approximately 70 oyster and clam shells blanketed the former ground surface of the grave, some of which have been identified as originating from the Yorktown, Virginia, fossil formation. Although there is no way of knowing exactly why these shells were placed in this way, some archaeologists have suggested that they were used in making mortar for surrounding buildings. Another recent interpretation has suggested that this shell cover could relate to the Central West African mortuary practice of surfacing graves in white shells. This interpretation has come up with historical findings suggesting that the African laborers who lived and worked at Flowerdew Hundred between 1619 and 1628 were originally taken from the Kongo and Ndongo cultures of Angola in West Central Africa. Archaeological narratives are constantly shifting as new research and scholarly debate refines and reassesses what we know about early Virginia.