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Africans in the Chesapeake

Finding African Burials in the Chesapeake
African Origins
The Young Woman from Harleigh Knoll

With skeletal remains, the story of Africans in the Chesapeake is slowly unfolding, person by person. Remote-sensing technologies are helping scientists locate forgotten men and women.

the young woman from Harleigh Knoll
Using GPR at Harleigh Knoll. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) can detect underground anomalies. Along with larger human bones such as skulls, femurs, and tibiae, other grave features become visible—metallic coffin hardware, the disturbed soil of grave shafts,and rocks or metal objects in grave fill.

the young woman from Harleigh Knoll
African female skeleton partially exposed in the remains of a wooden coffin, exceptionally well-preserved in sandy soil. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

GPR contributed to finding one young African woman, 17 to 19 years old, whose story might have remained untold. She lived at a time when the population of slaves in the Chesapeake was rising. At the tobacco plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where she was found, the remains of whites and blacks are buried side by side. Her skeleton tells of a hard life of physical labor. Back trauma is evident in her vertebrae, along with heavy use of muscles that deeply pitted the bones of her upper body.


The young woman from Harleigh Knoll
Facial reconstruction based on the skeleton found in the coffin. Forensic facial reconstruction by Joanna Hughes. Sculpted bust by Studio EIS. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The cause of her death remains a mystery, but—through the technology of facial reconstruction—she now can return our gaze. An instructive video (Shouldering the Load) explains how we have discovered what we do know about her and how forensic artists were able to reconstruct her likeness.

Explore other forensic files.

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