8 Cemeteries Unearthed at Construction Sites

Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images
Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images

The people who lived before us are often just beneath our feet, even if their tombs are sometimes forgotten. Lost under urban development, they are rediscovered when a subway, building, or other structure claims the ground for progress. Here are eight burial sites that came to light in this unconventional manner.

1. SOLDIERS' REMAINS IN ROME’S FUTURE SUBWAY

The construction of Rome's subway has unearthed everything from a 2nd-century home decorated with mosaics and frescos to a 2300-year-old aqueduct. The San Giovanni station, slated to open in 2018, will feature displays of artifacts found during its excavation, such as Renaissance ceramics and the remains of a 1st-century agricultural fountain.

Back in 2016, extension work on Line C ran into a 2nd-century military barracks with 39 rooms, likely used by Emperor Hadrian's army, as well as a mass grave of 13 skeletons. The dead may have been members of the elite Praetorian Guard, protectors of the Roman emperor. Investigations are ongoing, although officials have planned for the barracks to be incorporated into the station architecture. Its opening date remains in limbo as archaeological finds continue to slow its construction.

2. AFRICAN-AMERICAN NEW YORKERS UNDER AN OFFICE BUILDING

In 1991, construction of a federal office building revealed a colonial-era burial ground in Lower Manhattan. The graves, dating back to the 1690s, had been lost due to landfill and development, yet were identified as part of the African burial grounds that in the 17th century were located outside the old city.

Banned from interment in white cemeteries, free and enslaved Africans and African Americans had established a place to give respect to their dead, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 burials. Thanks to grassroots activism, including protests against continued construction, the site is now commemorated with the African Burial Ground National Monument, which opened in 2006.

It's not the sole black cemetery to be buried under development in New York: The Second African Burial Ground, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, is located below today's Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side; and in East Harlem, a 17th-century slave burial ground, discovered by construction workers at a bus depot, awaits a planned memorial.

3. PLAGUE VICTIMS IN THE LONDON TUBE

Burrowing deep under London, the ongoing Crossrail commuter rail project has exposed obscure layers of the city's past—and a treasure trove of history. Along with medieval ice skates and a Tudor bowling ball, archaeologists have identified two mass graves. One has 13 skeletons of people who probably died in the 14th century of Black Death (with DNA on their teeth still holding the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis); a larger site has 42 skeletons of victims of the Great Plague of 1665. The study of the Great Plague skeletons, excavated in 2015 by Museum of London Archaeology, similarly showed traces of the disease in their old teeth. (Luckily the bacteria is no longer active, so no need to dust off your plague doctor beak mask.)

While such "plague pits" have long been rumored—some urban legends say the London Underground had to curve to avoid messy heaps of bodies—study of the sites indicated that there was in fact great care taken with the deceased. The bodies were placed in individual coffins, giving them some dignity even in this hasty mass burial.

4. EARLY PHILADELPHIANS UNDER A FUTURE APARTMENT BUILDING

Sometimes, to borrow a line from Poltergeist, people only move the headstones when relocating a cemetery, and stray bones and coffins are left behind (digging up the dead is generally unpleasant work). That seemed to be the case with a graveyard unearthed at a construction site on Arch Street in Philadelphia in March 2017. The dozens of coffins that were discovered are believed to be part of the First Baptist Church Burial Ground, established in 1707 and supposedly moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1859. The Mütter Institute spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign for analysis and reinterment of the bones, and volunteer archaeologists convened at the site, racing against time to map the grounds and remove the burials of more than 100 people. Their remains were carefully analyzed.

Archaeologists subsequently found the remains of more than 400 people at the site as construction went on in other areas. Building at the site continues, as does the grassroots-funded research on the bones (you can follow the team's progress at the Arch Street Bones Project website).

5. WOMEN AND THEIR GOLD WREATHS IN A GREEK SUBWAY SITE

In 2013, construction on a subway in Thessaloniki, Greece, turned up the grave of a woman buried around 2300 years ago. The Early Hellenistic lady was interred with a gold olive branch wreath.

Surprisingly, this wasn't the first such skeleton found during subway construction to be so regally crowned. In 2008, another Hellenistic woman was discovered with four gold wreaths and gold earrings in the shape of dogs' heads, all indicators of wealth and respectability—something marred a bit by the sewage pipe that had wrecked part of her grave.

6. ANCIENT BONES IN THE WAY OF A CANADIAN PIPELINE

While digging a trench in 2013 for a gas pipeline in Saskatchewan, Canada, a contractor noticed bone fragments in the soil that turned out to be 1000-year-old human remains.

Construction was halted so First Nations elders and archaeologists could examine the area. Ultimately, the pipeline company opted to tunnel deeper to avoid disturbing the ancient burials.

It was only one of many instances of massive infrastructure projects coming in contact with pre-colonial burial grounds. In 2017, for example, road construction in Duluth, Minnesota desecrated graves when the state's department of transportation failed to evaluate the area for artifacts prior to breaking ground.

7. HEADLESS VIKINGS IN THE MIDDLE OF A PROPOSED ROAD

Near Weymouth in Dorset, England, a mass grave of more than 50 young men was discovered in 2009 by archaeologists doing a survey before road construction began. All the victims had been killed brutally, at once, with multiple blows from a sharp weapon visible on their bones, and their heads had been severed. In 2010, researchers identified them as Vikings by radio-carbon dating the bones to 910 to 1030 CE, when the English clashed with Viking invaders. Analysis of the isotopes in the teeth indicated Scandinavian origins. Due to their lack of clothing and their similar manner of death, they were likely executed as captives. They're now part of the Dorset County Museum.

8. INDIGENT CHICAGOANS UNDERNEATH A LUXURY RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT

Among the roughly 38,000 people interred beneath a neighborhood on Chicago's Far Northwest Side are the impoverished inmates of the Cook County almshouse and patients from the county insane asylum. The area was known as Dunning, and its squalid institutions were so well known that a judge in 1889 declared them a "tomb for the living." The 20 acres of the site also included a potter's field for the indigent and unclaimed, and the burials of more than 100 unidentified dead from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The potter's field was revealed in 1989 during construction on luxury homes. Sewer workers who were laying pipes also turned up a corpse that was so well-preserved his handlebar mustache was still visible. Bodies were relocated to a site now called Read-Dunning Memorial Park, giving these dead some recognition in the city for the first time.

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Explore Two of Pompeii’s Excavated Homes in This Virtual Tour

A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 2000 years since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius decimated Pompeii in 79 C.E., and archaeologists are still uncovering secrets about life in the ancient Roman city. As Smithsonian reports, they’ve recently excavated two homes in Regio V, a 54-acre area just north of the Pompeii Archaeological Park—and you can see the findings for yourself in a virtual tour published by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

The 7.5-minute video comprises drone footage of the houses and surrounding ruins, along with commentary by park director Massimo Osanna that explains what exactly you’re looking at and what types of people once lived there. Osanna’s commentary is in Italian, but you can read the English translation here.

The homes, both modest private residences that probably housed middle-class families, border the Vicolo dei Balconi, or “Alley of the Balconies.” The first is fittingly named “House With the Garden” because excavators discovered that one of its larger rooms was, in fact, a garden. Excavators pinpointed the outlines of flowerbeds and even made casts of plant roots, which paleobotanists will use to try to identify what grew there. In addition to the garden and vibrant paintings that feature classic ancient deities like Venus, Adonis, and Hercules, “House With the Garden” also preserved the remains of its occupants: 11 victims, mostly women and children, who likely took shelter within the home while the men searched for a means of escape.

Across the street is “House of Orion,” named for two mosaics that depict the story of Orion, a huntsman in Greek mythology whom the gods transformed into the constellation that bears his name today.

“The owner of the house must have been greatly attracted to this myth, considering it features in two different rooms in which two different scenes of the myth are depicted,” Osanna says. “It is a small house which has proved to be an extraordinary treasure chest of art."

To see what Pompeian houses would’ve looked like before Mount Vesuvius had its fiery fit, check out this 3D reconstruction.

[h/t Smithsonian]