"Voices from beyond the grave" Excavation and anthropological examinations of skeletons of enslaved African-Caribeans in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands and compared with historical records

Associate Professor, MSc., PhD Pia Bennike, Laboratory of Biological Anthropology, Københavns Universitet

Most of what we know today about the lives of enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans in the Caribbean colonies originate from the written records of white people. Only very rarely do we hear the voices of the enslaved themselves and even then it is often in records where their stories are again filtered through the minds and words of white people. This is why the material remains of the life of the enslaved are of invaluable importance to our understanding of them. The things they left, for instance the ruins of their houses or the shards of their cooking pots, reflect part of their lives, but it is through their own bones we are permitted to hear their voices from beyond the grave. This is the closest we can possibly get to telling the story of their lives as they knew it.

The earthly remains of enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans are a particularly rich source of information. The purpose of the project is to evaluate the individual age at death, sex and possible ethnic origin through biological/forensic anthropological analyses of newly excavated skeletal remains. The skeleton stores a record of much of what happens during life like heavy physical labor, accidents, childbirth and diseases. For instance, the teeth reflect the kind of food that was eaten. Chemical analyses will help reveal the time of weaning, the amount of lead contamination and the geographical place of birth f the individual.

This interdisciplinary project and collaboration between anthropologists/ historians and archaeologists with the focus on the past enslaved people may be considered a unique possibility to re-establish a relationship between Denmark and the people of the US Virgin Islands who share a common history the lessons of which must never be forgotten.

English literature on archaeological excavations and investigations of slave cemeteries

English literature on archaeological excavations and investigations of slave cemeteries



Handler, J. S. & Corruccini, Robert S.: Plantation Slave Life in Barbados: A Physical Anthropological Analysis. In: Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 14, 1. 1983. Pp. 65‑90.

Handler, J. S.; Aufderheide, A. C.; Corruccini, R. S.; Branson, E. M.; Wittmer, L.E. Jr.: Lead Contact and Poisoning in Barbados Slaves: Historical, Chemical and Biological Evidence. In: Social Science History. 10. 4. 1986. Pp. 399‑425.

Jacobi, Keith P., Cook, Della Collins, Corruccini, Robert S. & Handler, Jerome S.: Congenital Syphilis in the Past: Slaves at Newton Plantation, Barbados, West Indies. In: American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 89, 1992. Pp. 145‑158.

Khudabux, Mohamed Rakieb: Effects of life conditions on the health of a Negro slave community in Suriname: with reference to similar aspects in local pre-Columbian Amerindians. 1991. Doctoral thesis, Leiden. (DNLB: DISP. 93, 1746)

Watters, David R.: Mortuary Patterns at the Harney Site Slave Cemetery, Montserrat, in Caribbean Perspective. In: Historical Archaeology, 28, 3, 1994. Pp. 56‑73.

Armstrong D.V.; Fleischman M.L.: House-Yard Burials of Enslaved Labourers in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica. In: International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Volume 7, Number 1, March 2003, pp. 33-65(33).

Courtaud, Patrice & Romon, Thomas: ”Le Site d’Anse Sainte-Marguerite (Guadeloupe, Grand Terre). Presentation d’un cimetiere d’epoque coloniale.” In: Journal of Caribbean Archaeology, Special Publication nr. 1, 2004. Pp. 58-66.

Christopher Crain: A Skeletal Analysis of Material Recovered from Bridgetown, Barbados. (presentation at THE 21ST CONGRESS OF THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR CARIBBEAN ARCHAEOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES, ST. AUGUSTINE, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, JULY 24 – 30, 2005)


US Virgin Islands:

Dailey, Robert C.: Osteological Analysis of Human Skeletal Remains from the Virgin Islands. The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. 1974.

Stoutamire, James W., Cring, Daniel F., Dinnel, Kathrine J., Haviser, Jay B.: Archaeological Investigations at Cinnamon Bay, St. John, Virgin Islands. Southeast Conservation Archaeology Center. Florida State University. Archaeological Research Report No. 6. 1980.

Lenik, Stephan Timothy: Historical Archaeological Approaches to Afro-Cruzan identity at estate Lower Bethlehem, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. 2004. (unpublished MA thesis, university of South Carolina).

Righter, Elizabeth: The Tutu Archaeological Village Site. A multidisciplinary case study in human adaptation. Routhledge, 2002.



The Electronic Versions of the African Burial Ground Final History and Final Skeletal Biology Reports

Prepared by Howard University. http://www.africanburialground.com/ABG_FinalReports.htm


South Africa:

Cox, Glenda, Sealy, Judith: Investigating Identity and Life Histories: Isotopic Analysis and Historical Documentation of Slave Skeletons Found on the Cape Town Foreshore, South Africa. In: International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 1, 3, 1997. Pp. 207-223.

Danish literature on forensic/biological anthropology

Danish literature on forensic/biological anthropology:


Bennike P. 1985 Palæopathology of Danish Skeletons. A comparative study of demography, diseases and injuries. Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen.

Bennike P. 1997 Denmark. In: Spencer F (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology. An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1:330-333.

Bröste K, Jørgensen J Balslev, Becker CJ, Brøndsted J. 1956 Prehistoric Man in Denmark. Vol I-II. A study in Physical Anthropology. Munksgaard, København.

Fischer- Møller, K 1942 The Medieval Norse Settlements in Greenland. Anthropological Investigations. Meddr Grønland 89(2):1-82.

Hansen, F. C.C. 1924 Anthropologia Medico-Historica Groenlandiae Antiquae I. Herjolfsnes. Meddr Grønland 67:293-547.

Jørgensen J Balslev 1953 The Eskimo Skeleton. Contributions to Physical Anthropology of the aborginal Greenlanders. Meddl om Grønland 146 (2): København, Reitzel.

Lynnerup N 1998 The Greenland Norse. A Biological-anthropological Study. Meddr Grønland Man & Society 24:1-149.

Møller-Christensen V.1958 Bogen om Æbelholt Kloster. Nationalmuseet, København.

Møller-Christensen V. 1978 Leprosy Changes of the Skull. Odense University Press.

P.O.Pedersen  1949 The East Greenland Eskimo dentition. Meddr Grønland 142:1-256.

Sellevold BJ, Hansen U Lund, Jørgensen J Balslev 1984 Iron Age Man in Denmark. Prehistoric Man in Denmark. København, Kgl. Nordiske Oldskriftsselskab.