Bibb grave relocation documentary to air at Archaeology Channel film festival

Bibb grave relocation to air at Archaeology Channel film festival

lfabian@macon.comApril 1, 2013 

As archaeologist Valerie Davis searched for unmarked graves in south Bibb County, she was not expecting what she unearthed.

With gentle brush strokes, she exposed something white in the soil off Avondale Mill Road.

“When the face come out of the dirt, it was startling,” Davis remembered last month, nearly four years later.

What she initially thought was a shell turned out to be the white head of a porcelain doll buried in the arms of a small child.

A few years ago, Davis and other New South Associates archaeologists out of Stone Mountain were hired by the Georgia Department of Transportation to find and study the undocumented cemetery that was in the way of the Sardis Church Road extension project.

Their work has been captured in a documentary produced by the DOT’s Office of Environmental Services and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

The production, “I Remember, I Believe,” will be shown at the Archaeology Channel International Film and Video Festival in Eugene, Ore., in May.

It was one of 18 projects chosen out of 79 entries submitted from 22 countries.

When the DOT learned of the burial plots, the property already had been bought for the Sardis Church Road Extension and there was no feasible alternative, planners said.

The DOT earned national recognition for its work researching and relocating the cemetery.

The Federal Highway Administration presented the Exemplary Human Environment Initiatives Award in recognition of its efforts to locate the abandoned graves, research those interred and connect them to their descendants through DNA testing.

Early research indicated there could be a couple dozen graves presumed to hold black slaves and their free descendents, who worked the old McArthur plantation.

As archaeologists dug deeper, they uncovered many more remains.

“It was pretty powerful for everyone involved out there,” said Matt Matternes, another archaeologist on the team. “Everybody learned something in this.”

Matternes and the DOT’s cultural resources section chief, Eric Duff, were amazed that tracking dogs were able to help them pinpoint the burial sites.

“You would think after 150, 140 years that the scent would be gone, but that wasn’t the case,” Duff said.

Although there were no clues on the surface of what lay below, ground-penetrating radar confirmed where the dogs indicated.

They identified the remains of 101 people, including 63 infants and children.

The bones, artifacts and coffin hardware were eventually reburied at the Bethel AME Church, about 10 miles away in Peach County.

U.S. Census Bureau records helped fill in the first pieces of the puzzle that led to several modern day families who scattered across the country.

The DOT invited them to the excavation site to share what archaeologists found in the isolated burial ground.

“It’s so rare that we work on projects where we have descendant families,” Davis said.

Looking into the dozens of holes in the ground, the families gazed on the remains of what could have been their ancestors.

With cameras recording the event, the Rev. Skip Mason, believed to be related to one of families, quoted from the Bible’s book of Ezekiel.

When the prophet is looking out at a valley of dry bones, the question is asked, “Can these bones live?”

Mason, who believes the Avondale discovery was life-changing for the families, said he asked God the same question.

“Yes,” was the answer, Mason said. “These bones live in us. We are the descendents of these people.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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