SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Construction stopped at a Southside Savannah site after a colonial cemetery was discovered.
“It’s never happened before, so it’s a very unique and unusual situation,” said Julie McLean, city engineer and director of Savannah’s Development Services Department.
McLean’s worked in Savannah’s Development Services Department for seven years and says she’s never had to deal with centuries-old graves under a construction site.
After a call from a man who knew a cemetery once sat on the White Bluff Road property that was set become an O’Reilly Auto Parts, the city stopped construction to investigate historic records.
“We were actually able to verify the citizen’s complaint that there were records that indicated there had in fact been a cemetery on that property,” McLean said. “The Densler family had their graves located on that site.”
A genealogist found one living heir in Atlanta who said his ancestor was a slave on the property, which was once a plantation, and he has the same surname. It’s unknown if he is a genetic ancestor, but he did confirm his family lived near White Bluff Road.
“You think about Savannah being the historic downtown, the designated historic district, but there’s so much history everywhere,” McLean said. “It turns out that this particular piece of land was actually originally a colonial plantation, and there’s probably more history prior to that that we don’t at this point know about.”
The family ledger stone marking the graves had been moved years earlier to a cemetery in Bloomingdale, so there were no obvious grave markers on the property.
“Through the city Cemeteries Department, they were able to actually make contact with a local funeral home who had been involved in relocating the family ledger stone,” McLean said.
The first step for Hutton, the developer, was to hire an archaeologist to search the site.
“They actually found the graves on Halloween,” McLean said.
Victoria Love, director of marketing for Hutton, says in 20 years and 1,200 developments all over the country, this is only the second time something like this has ever happened, so there’s no process or procedure for it.
She said the focus now is making sure they handle this ethically and treat those who were buried there like family.
“For us, it’s about making sure we do it right,” Love said.
Under Georgia law, Hutton can’t build anything on the property over those graves unless the company gets approval to move them and then actually relocate them.
“Assuming they approve, the archaeologist will have to basically do the very detailed, meticulous excavation," McLean said.
Hutton will fund any excavation and transfer, Love said. She did not have an estimated cost because it’s not yet known what work needs to be done.
The city is now working with Hutton to make sure the graves are preserved and their permits are still valid if and when the project can move forward.
As far as preventing this in the future, McLean says she thinks property owners will just have to consider archaeological research, like they do environmental due diligence, before purchasing land.
In 2018, Savannah’s underground archeological history was on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation “Places in Peril” list.
It suggested Savannah incorporate archeology into its regulations to keep that history from being destroyed.