A year after human remains were discovered during excavations to bury power lines near a historic cemetery in Cruz Bay, archaeologists and government officials have come up with a proposal to respectfully rebury the remains found and move forward with the project.
Their proposal was presented Thursday during a Zoom meeting that was open to the public and attended by more than 30 participants. Now the general public has two weeks – until Sept. 8 – to send their comments, questions, and concerns to FEMA, the federal agency that has funded the project, by email to FEMAfirstname.lastname@example.org.
The reburial process is “an important process, one that we do not take lightly,” said Brooke Persons, the lead archaeologist who had been monitoring the excavation sites since the work began in Cruz Bay last summer.
The remains of four individuals were found along Strand Gade near the entrance to Gallows Point Resort, which is adjacent to the Cruz Bay Cemetery. Each time human remains were discovered, work was halted at the site while excavation continued elsewhere in Cruz Bay. Work at these sites is still on hold.
If their proposal is accepted by the public, officials are planning to initiate the reburial process and complete the excavation work so that WAPA can link up the underground system by the end of this year.
Persons, an archaeologist with the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said plans now call for further non-invasive research of the remains in the field, including photographs, drawings, and measurements.
After the public comment period is completed, suggestions will be incorporated into a set of final recommendations, and the remains will then be removed and placed in the custody of the Virgin Islands government for further research and analysis.
If the remains do not crumble after being removed from the field, standard bioarcheological techniques could reveal each individual’s age, gender, ancestry, height, pathology, and trauma.
Once that work is completed, officials are proposing that each individual (and any associated artifacts) be wrapped in muslin, placed in a burial box, and interred in a multilevel vault marked with a plaque. An abandoned crypt located at the lower cemetery in Cruz Bay is available, according to Kurt Marsh Jr., the St. John representative on the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission.
Three of the four individuals found were originally buried in coffins, but coffins are no longer needed because of the current size of the remains. Furthermore, space in the Cruz Bay cemetery is very scarce, so officials are proposing that a multilevel vault be built as is the custom among local families.
Sean L. Krigger, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, said reburial boxes made of local mahogany were used when human remains were found during renovations of Fort Christian on St. Thomas.
Little is known right now about the four individuals whose remains were found, and it’s unclear how much more can be learned.
Mary Davis, a biological archaeologist, said measurements and observations of the remains can be put into a database that might reveal whether their ancestry was European or African.
Further DNA studies are more invasive and costly and are not part of the present proposal, but historians George Tyson and David Knight Sr. urged officials to consider further investigation.
“As a historian and lifelong generational resident of St. John, I feel strongly that it would be in our best interests to get the dating of these burials,” said Knight. “Who they were is really important to me. I understand the constraints, but is there a possibility that the community could sway the authorities to get more research done? We’re a small community that’s aware of its roots.”
The host of the Zoom meeting, Sharla Azizi, an official from FEMA’s Environmental Planning and Historical Preservation Office, said she could not answer the question, but she encouraged Knight to get community consensus and submit that suggestion during the comment period.
The Cruz Bay Cemetery first appeared on a map published in 1919, but the cemetery has been in operation since at least the late 1800s. The oldest documented burial there is the grave of Ms. Lucretia Minor, who was born on St. Croix in 1820 and who died on St. John in 1895.
The cemetery now encompasses approximately 180 known graves and another 180 probable graves at the lower portion, and another 118 marked graves at the upper portion.
During the presentation, officials showed maps of Strand Gade, also known as Bay Street, which now runs straight through the Cruz Bay Cemetery. A 1950s map shows the road as a footpath which became a Jeep trail to Frank Bay. A 1983 map shows it as a straight road.
“The changes (seen on the maps) may seem subtle, but they impacted the area in critical ways, resulting in the displacement of burials,” said Persons. She said that during the process of extracting the remains, WAPA contractors might have to dig up more of the roadway, but no further excavation is expected to complete WAPA’s underground work at this time.
Editor’s Note: Sharla Azizi represented FEMA’s Environmental Planning and Historical Preservation Office. Her name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.