Archaeological investigations at the Old Frankfort Cemetery recovered a wealth of information about the people who were laid to rest there: ethnic heritage, age and sex, the state of their overall health and the diseases they experienced, their work history, the kinds of foods they ate, and the tangible evidence of their final days on earth.
For most of its history, the Old Frankfort Cemetery was an integrated burial ground for Frankfort’s working class and the poor. Euro-Americans as well as freed and enslaved African-Americans would have been buried in this cemetery.
But even within this population, archaeologists were able to identify differences among the dead that had as much to do with their economic standing as it did their ethnic heritage. Regardless of a person’s ethnicity, people buried in the Upper Area were relatively better situated, financially, than those buried in the Lower Area. This is reflected by the fact that the former ate a greater variety of foods, and by the amount of effort and resources their families spent on their loved ones’ burials (lining grave shafts to create below-ground vaults and purchasing somewhat fancier coffins). Other factors, too, like religious beliefs or cultural traditions, undoubtedly contributed to the burial patterns researchers documented within the Old Frankfort Cemetery. These include, for example, placing coins on the eyes of mainly adult women; the preference of wrapping infants and children in shrouds; or the custom that led men to wear wedding bands on their left hand and women on their right.
The people’s bones tell stories of hardship – but also ones of resilience and compassion. Many had been born and raised in an urban environment. Thus, they experienced many of the problems that went hand-in-hand with the growth and industrialization of cities during this era: overcrowding, lack of adequate sanitation, little access to clean water, and poor nutrition. Taken together, these factors made antebellum urban Frankfort unhealthy for the poor and enslaved. Adults – and children as young as 6 to 8 years of age – coped with the demands of hard work, and the challenges of poor nutrition and poor health. Mothers weaned their children early in order to return to work quickly. Many of the children died young. Most people were routinely sick throughout their childhood, and as adults, their health probably did not improve greatly.
Living as they did before the advent of antibiotics and modern medical practices, their lives were shortened by chronic disease, serious infections, abscessed teeth, and malnutrition. By far, the most common aliment was arthritis. About one-third of the people buried in the Cemetery had abnormally formed bones. In most cases, the cause was malnutrition/poor nutrition or infections that were the result of the former. Most people had unfilled cavities in one or more of their teeth. Although most of these aliments did not kill them, these people would have lived with much physical pain and discomfort nonetheless.
If someone survived to adulthood, they had a good chance of living a full life. But it would have been a very hard and difficult one. Even by nineteenth-century standards, the lives of the people who were laid to rest in the Old Frankfort Cemetery were not easy. Their bones show that everyone worked very hard at tasks involving strenuous physical labor. Leg and hip muscle enlargements and protrusions on their bones are evidence of repeated heavy lifting, and arm bones reflect long-term and repetitive wrist and forearm movements.
Everyone was laid to rest in a coffin. Most of the coffins were plain wooden boxes made from eastern red cedar or cherry. Hexagonal examples were the most common, followed by rectangular ones.
Nails and screws held coffins together. Because many different sizes of nails were used, it appears that the coffins were not mass produced, but instead were made by family and friends or by local furniture and cabinetmakers.
The coffins of a few people had extra amenities. Tiny brass tacks found with 18 of the coffins show that the bottoms of these coffins had been lined with plain cotton cloth or more expensive velveteen. Four rectangular coffins had handles: three had brass handles and one had iron handles. The brass handles had inlaid designs, and thus are the most “ornate” objects investigators recovered from Cemetery. But in comparison to the ornate coffin handles of the late 1800s, these handles were very plain. Differences in coffin characteristics suggest that some families may have been better off financially than others or that some families spared no expense on their deceased relatives’ death arrangements.
All 242 people buried at the Old Frankfort Cemetery were laid out in their coffins on their back. Women’s lower arms and hands were usually placed across their chest, while those of men were primarily placed across or on their pelvis.
At least 155 people were dressed in clothing or were wrapped in a shroud before being placed in their coffins. Men wore drop-front pants, or breeches or short pants, pull-over or button-up shirts, vests, and coats, while women wore primarily dresses, but also blouses and skirts. One woman was buried wearing a hat, and two were buried wearing pants similar to those worn by men. Infants and children wore pull-over shirts or dresses and pants. No one was buried wearing shoes (their feet were bare or they wore stockings), but this was not uncommon at this time, since shoes could be passed on to other family members.
Only a very few people were buried wearing jewelry. These items consisted of bead necklaces (one was made of “faux jet” faceted black glass beads) and rings. Adults of African descent older than 30 years of age were those buried wearing rings. Most rings were simple brass bands, but three were gold bands.
Most of the graves were simple rectangular pits. In 67 cases, large limestone slabs, and occasionally bricks, covered and lined the sides and bottom of the grave shaft. This created a box or below-ground rectangular vault. Constructing these vaults required digging the grave shaft much wider than the coffin. Most of the stone was not cut or shaped. Rather, it was natural rock undoubtedly collected from nearby rock outcrops. In many instances, the use of a cover-stone was so effective that deterioration of the coffin wood and decomposition of the body created a void.