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History Reveals Itself in Mason Neck

Skull Found During Construction Activity

August 15, 2002

Writers from Shakespeare to Robinson Jeffers have linked the past with the future. Scientists as renowned as Einstein have proclaimed time is relative, lending empirical ratification to the Bard's proclamation, "What is past is prologue."

Those observations and theories took on new meaning last week to a couple in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County just trying to build a new house. All was going well until a construction worker's shovel struck a hard object.

It was the skull of a former inhabitant of that land from an era not that far removed from 21st-century America. It has become three-dimensional testimony to Einstein's theory of relativity, at least in the sociological frame of reference.

On July 25, workers digging the foundation for a home on land that was once part of George Mason's Gunston Hall Estate unearthed the skeletal remains of an 18th-century African-American woman believed to have been a slave belonging to the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

"Her burial in a coffin was very interesting and indicates that she had some status," said Michael Johnson, staff archeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority. "We were able to determine that there was a coffin by finding wrought iron nails. These also helped us determine the time frame."

JOHNSON INDICATED the remains dated to approximately 1820 or earlier, after they were examined by a pathologist. Her age was estimated at about 50 when she died. "She was older for that era. She could have been a matriarch. Most people of that era died in their 40s, particularly slaves," he speculated. "Or she may have been freed at that time."

"We were called by the police after the bones were discovered," Johnson confirmed. They were called because the contractor wasn't sure whether it was a crime scene.

"We went in and gathered what bones there were. We also cleaned the area for any other grave sites but didn't find any," Johnson verified.

Springfield Toyota dealer Michael Jennings and his wife, Diane, own the 27-acre site, which was once part of Mason's estate. Their contractor was laying the foundation for their 8,000-square-foot home when the discovery was made.

In addition to the skull, the remains include parts of the spine and rib cage. Archaeologists believe that there could be additional grave sites and artifacts on the land, but for now the Jennings have been cleared to continue their construction.

"Since all the digging for the house has been completed, we see no reason for them not to continue," Johnson said. "The house is on the far side of what we feel could have been a cemetery, if there was one."

OVER THIS PAST weekend additional remains were discovered in the area. But they turned out to be animal bones, according to Christine Jirikowic, Gunston Hall's senior archaeologist.

Kevin Shupe, Gunston Hall librarian and archivist, acknowledged that the estate "does not have many slave artifacts" or historical evidence pertaining to slavery. What is known is that Mason, although opposed to slavery, did own approximately 90 slaves.

Mason spoke out against slave trading and refused to sign the Constitution because it did not abolish the practice. His Virginia Declaration of Rights contained many of the same principles later incorporated into the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

Jennings, who purchased the land at Mason Neck in 2000, has indicated that he intends to have the remains properly interred in a grave and marked with a headstone on the land. "I just want her to be treated with dignity," he said.

Although further research at the site and surrounding area depends on permission from the owners, "Jennings has taken the initiative in helping us learn all we can by acquiring the expertise of one of the best sensing services in the country," Johnson said. "They survey the area with a magnetometer and ground penetrating radar."

This identifies any areas were the ground has been disturbed or where foreign objects exist beneath the surface. "We have also volunteered to come back and work with Gunston Hall personnel in scrapping the area for any additional artifacts," he said. The land in question is approximately one half mile from Gunston Hall.

Both the ground imaging and scrapping will be done in phases, according to Johnson. Areas involved with the new home, such as the planned garage, pool, terrace, and garden will be done first, with other sections studied later.

If another grave is discovered, the site would then be designated a graveyard under the Fairfax County code. That would make it subject to a variety of regulations. One of those restrictions would necessitate halting further construction, according to Gerald W. Hyland, Fairfax County Supervisor, Mount Vernon District.

"This is an important discovery for the history of Mason Neck and Gunston Hall," Johnson said. "But, the way to proceed is through everyone cooperating. This is private land and the Jennings' have shown a lot of understanding and sensitivity by their willingness to re-bury the remains and erect a headstone."