Below the Bottom: Historical Significance, Archaeology, and Public Engagement at Shockoe Bottom

Written by: Terry Brock

Primary Source: Dirt

Last month, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones announced his plans for the development of a currently under-utilized part of Richmond’s downtown called Shockoe Bottom. The centerpiece of the project is a minor league baseball stadium accompanied by an apartment complex, grocery store, retail stores, an office building, and parking. The plan also incorporates a memorial building and space to commemorate and discuss the area’s history as the heart of the American domestic slave trade during the mid–19th century.

The proposed development plan by the Mayors Office in Shockoe Bottom (via proposed development plan by the Mayor’s Office in Shockoe Bottom (via

The proposal is contentious, with the historical significance of the space being most important to many opponents. Opponents argue that the proliferation of the 19th-century slave trade and the nearby African American burial ground make the space both historically and spiritually significant. They argue that a baseball field denigrates that story. The city has countered with a proposal that, they believe, minimizes the impact on the locations of known slave trade sites, highlights Lumpkin’s Jail as a memorial and exhibit space discussing the slave trade, and converts the area of the burial ground into a memorialized park or green space. It is a heated debate, and both sides have valid arguments.

Instead of discussing who’s right and who’s wrong, I want to discuss the way this debate frames what is historically significant about this space, and how that affects the archaeological resources at the site. I also want to examine whether archaeology will be necessary if this project continues and what archaeological sites may be affected. Finally, I will make a case for a public approach to the mitigation. In this post, I am operating under an assumption that the project, as proposed, will happen. This is not an endorsement, nor is it a critique, of the project: I’m simply asking, “if the project is supported, how will it impact archaeological resources, and what will be or can be done about it?” I have only seen archaeology mentioned a few times, and done so in ways that are either as part of a pro/con argument, or questioning what will happen if archaeological resources exist and are disturbed during the work. Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

Defining Significance in Shockoe Bottom

First, I want to examine how historical significance is being defined in Shockoe Bottom, and how that significance is being addressed through the proposed project’s plans. For the most part, both sides agree that the historical value of Shockoe Bottom lies in its role as the heart of the United States’ domestic slave trade during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s and highlight the site of a late 18th- early 19th-century African American Burial Ground. Certainly, this activity is a crucial component of America’s past. The significance of the sites and activities that took place are critical to our understanding of 19th-century Richmond and the United States, not to mention the space’s cultural importance for descendants of enslaved African Americans who were imprisoned, sold, and buried in this area. How to remember this past, however, has become a contentious issue: the opposition believes the construction of a baseball field denigrates this story, and are reportedly working on a counter proposal to make the area a historic district celebrating the diversity of histories from that area (Scroll down in this link), while the proponents of the Shockoe redevelopment have presented their own plan for memorializing the space.

The proposed Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site (via proposed Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site (via

To address these concerns, the proponents of the project have used their press release and press conference, marketing, and their promotional website to demonstrate their understanding of and respect for this story. During the press conference, held at the site of the proposed development area, Mayor Jones spoke about his personal connection to Lumpkin’s Jail and Virginia Union; Delores McQuinn, the chair of the Slave Trail Commission, spoke in support of the project as a continuation of the work done thus far to commemorate the Slave Trail; and Historian and University of Richmond President Ed Ayers spoke about the historical significance of the space during the slave trade, and the importance of telling that story. The inclusion of a Heritage Site to examine and present this part of history is a critical component of the project, although it will require a $30 million fundraising initiative to be completed.

A map of Shockoe Bottom showing the proposed development site and the locations of known slave trade sites (via map of Shockoe Bottom showing the proposed development site and the locations of known slave trade sites (via

The website’s authors also make efforts to demonstrate how the project will limit its impact on slave trade sites. A map shows the location of historically identified slave trade sites in relation to the impacted areas, showing that only a few fall within the project area. The FAQ goes to great lengths to ensure that the development and the slave trade sites are, for the most part, in separate areas:

The Lumpkins Jail site and the great majority of the slave trading sites existed west of the present-day train trestle, which is where the Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site will be located. Importantly, all of the economic development that is part of the Revitalization Plan, including the ballpark as well as the office and residential components, will be east of the present-day train trestle, over 100 yards away. In fact, the ballpark will be constructed on land that today contains empty, asphalt parking lots. (emphasis added)

Any archaeologist who just read that last sentence shuddered: we know that the presence of a parking lot in now way rules out the presence of archaeological sites of significance. In fact, parking lots are far less damaging to archaeological sites than structural development such as buildings. The excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail and at the Cedar and Broad Block demonstrated that quite recently: both had significant and well preserved archaeological materials below these same Shockoe Bottom parking lots.

By limiting the discussion of what is historically relevant to the space, the potential for other sites of importance to be ignored or destroyed exists. I am not suggesting that the history of bondage or the slave trade is insignificant by any means (my research examines African American plantation slavery). But it is worthwhile for both sides to consider the likelihood that there are other sites from other time periods that tell other stories, and that those histories may also be significant to understanding the history of this place. The positioning of the development may also impact those histories.

Will there be Archaeology?

This is actually two questions: will this project require archaeology, and will there be preserved archaeological features to excavate? I think that the answer to both will be “yes.” However, the process of deciding if, where, and when to dig can be complicated and difficult to translate.

Requiring Archaeology

Archaeologists excavating at Lumpkin’s Jail (via

Determining when a project is legally required to conduct archaeology depends on a lot of factors. Cultural resources, which includes archaeological and architectural remains, are protected through federal, state, and local laws and ordinances. Federal Review falls under the guidelines of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA). If a project receives state or federal funding or permitting, Section 106 is enacted, and the project must undergo a cultural resources survey to determine if any archaeological or architectural resources will be impacted. This process often leads to evaluating what was found in the survey in order to determine the integrity of each resource, their cultural significance, and their potential to contribute to our understanding of history. Sometimes this means conducting full excavations of a site, other times it means avoiding the site entirely, and sometimes it means that sites are not deemed culturally significant or intact. These decisions are influenced by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), cultural resource consultants, project participants (i.e. developers and politicians) and the public. If a project is conducted on private land, and does not require federal or state permitting, funding, etc., then the project does not fall under these requirements.

The City of Richmond has additional regulations in place to protect cultural resources not affected by Section 106. “Old and Historic Districts” were established throughout the city and projects within these areas are required to undergo architectural and archaeological review to protect the historical integrity of these districts. These projects are brought before the City’s Commission of Architectural Review, who then makes determinations about what construction and impact is appropriate and allowable and what is not, and these recommendations are then (I believe) sent to the City Council for final determination. Projects outside these Districts do not have to undergo a review process for the City.

The proposed area at Shockoe Bottom is not part of any designated Old and Historic District, meaning the City has no jurisdiction regarding the protection of archaeological sites. Therefore, a cultural resource survey will be required only if Federal or State permitting or funding will be part of this project (although the developers, as many have, can fund the study independent of any regulations). Initial reports indicate that most of the funding for the project will come from the City and private developers (although some funding for the heritage site may come from the Governor’s office, which would likely require mitigation of the areas developed for the heritage site, but not the development site). However, a critical component of the project is redirecting and mitigating the floodplain and the direction of Shockoe Creek, which currently runs underneath the development area. This will require the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency, which as part of its protocol will require a cultural resources survey of a portion of the project area related to these actions. So regardless of whether the City or the developers invest in identifying the impact of their work on cultural resources, some archaeology will be done.

This mitigation will likely begin with an extensive historical review of the project area, and the identification of areas of potential significance. Those spaces will then be archaeologically tested to determine if archaeological features, such as living surfaces, foundations, etc., still exist intact. If testing identifies surviving evidence of these periods, further excavations will occur, recovering as much as possible of the material which would be destroyed by construction, or causing the redesign of portions of the project to avoid these impacts. Only after this is completed in these areas can development begin. Certainly, there are other possibilities of how this process could take place, but this is the general idea.

It is important to note that other areas may not fall under the requirements of Section 106 because they may not be impacted by the plans for diverting flood waters and may be located on private land. It’s also important to acknowledge that I haven’t seen the plans for how the flooding will be mitigated, so I am assuming the Army Corps will be involved based on my understanding of the type of projects they are involved in, but I do not know they will be for certain. So, while the Army Corps of Engineers involvement would ensure that some of the sites will be mitigated, it may not serve as a catchall. It is important for these questions to be asked, because if they are not involved, then there will not be any federal mandate to conduct archaeological excavations.

Is Anything Left?

The best way to determine if archaeological sites are still intact without digging is to look at previous excavations that have been conducted in the area. A trip to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources reveals that there have not been any excavations conducted within the proposed development area. However, two large projects have been conducted on either side of the development area, and they both indicate that sites will be intact.

The Lumpkin’s Jail excavations, conducted on the northwest side of the development area, discovered the archaeological remains of a mid 19th-century slave jail, which later became the original site of Virginia Union. These intact foundations were located 8 to 14 feet below the surface, due to the filling that was carried out to raise the ground surface above Shockoe Creek (Laird 2010). The presence of intact resources at such a substantial depth suggests that other sites on the banks of Shockoe Creek may have survived all of the construction and city expansion that has created a very different landscape today (You can access the full report at the Slave Trail Commission website).

Soil cores placed by Draper Aden Associates in 2007 for environmental assessment also suggest that intact living surfaces are present. These five cores were located 16th Street and Broad, paralleling the northernmost areas of the development plans. The results indicate that there is likely a preserved layer from the 19th-century at a depth of 8 to 10 feet. Even more concerning is the proximity of these cores to the location of the African American Burial Ground.


This map shows the development area in blue in relationship to the areas excavated at Lumpkin’s Jail, the site of the Cedar and Broad Block, and the area where five soil cores were placed along I-95 in green.

Excavations conducted at the Cedar and Broad Street block, located on the opposite side of the proposed project area from Lumpkin’s Jail, also demonstrate the presence of well preserved archaeological remains. These were discovered just below the surface, and included building foundations and other features (Reid and Southerland 2008; Browning 2008; Browning and Houle 2008). This is even more remarkable, documenting the survival of significant sites despite the construction and city expansion of the 20th century. With intact archaeological remains on either side of the project area at varying depths, I have little doubt that the areas in between will also have intact archaeological features.

What Will They Find?

I have only been engaged in the history of Richmond since I moved here in August. But in a relatively short time getting to know the city, with a cursory search of online archives, and a few good books, I have found potentially significant sites located within the footprint of the proposed area that relate to the slave trade, but also other periods in Richmond’s history. This list is just a sample…

Slave Trade Sites

The proposed location includes at least three known sites of the slave trade, a fact made clear on the project’s own website. I have not gone in depth into the history of these sites, since the significance and importance of the slave trade has been made pretty clear by both sides of this debate. But, it is likely that these sites will be mitigated in their entirety if not because of the regulations, then through the emphasis that has been placed on the importance of the slave trade. It is worth noting, however, that these are only the sites that have been identified thus far through historical research, not archaeological investigations.

The Original Town Plan

In 1737, William Mayo laid out Richmond’s original town plan for Colonel William Byrd II (Potterfield 2011). The plan included 32 2-acre square blocks. Two of these blocks, bound by Broad, 17th, 18th, and Franklin Street, are part of this original layout, and will be impacted by the baseball field. Locating evidence of the earliest period of Richmond’s history (not to mention the Virginia Indians who lived in and nearby this area prior to European settlement) is rare and any surviving evidence would be incredibly significant.

This map from 1835, drawn using various survey maps from Richmonds history, identifies the original town plan, highlighted here in Yellow (Bates 1835)This map from 1835, drawn using various survey maps from Richmonds history, identifies the original town plan, highlighted here in Yellow Bates 1835

Seabrook’s Warehouse and Hospital


Seabrook’s Warehouse shortly following the Civil War (via

Located on one of these blocks is one of the most unique sites in the area, Seabrook’s Warehouse. During the Civil War, Seabrook’s became Seabrook’s Hospital, or General Hospital #9, and was the first stop for injured Confederate soldiers when they arrived in Richmond via the train cars (you can learn more about Seabrook’s at the Civil War Richmond site). They were treated and moved to other locations for longer-term care. It was also a site of bondage: slaves worked at the site, during and likely before the Civil War, and in at least one instance, were caught stealing blankets (Richmond Sentinal 1864). This site could provide us with information about the history of the Civil War, about medical treatment during the War, and about the conditions that Confederate soldiers and enslaved workers lived and worked in throughout the conflict.

Seabrooks Warehouse is marked in Yellow on this map from 1876 (Beers 1876).Seabrooks Warehouse is marked in Yellow on this map from 1876 (Beers 1876).

Burial Grounds, Human Remains, and Churches

A concern for any developer working in a historic area should be the potential for uncovering human remains. Seabrook’s elevates that potential as many soldiers died there and others likely had limbs amputated: these human remains were likely buried or disposed of on site or nearby. The adjacent African American Burial Ground, while outside the baseball project area, [See UPDATE Below] and the presence of nearby slave jails, also leaves the potential for forgotten burial grounds and human internments. Regardless, all the research on the Burial Ground have been historical, and no ground excavations have been conducted. If the Governor’s office supports the funding of the memorial site, and any development occurs in the burial ground area, mitigation should be considered.

UPDATE: As happens when you write a blog post on a topic, you often receive new information about the topic. A report by Michael Blakey, who conducted excavations at the NYC Burial Ground and is a faculty member at William and Mary, and Grace Turner, examined the DHR report linked to in this blog post. Blakey and Turner conclude that the boundaries of the African American Burial Ground may extend well beyond the area indicated by the DHR, that intact ground surfaces are identifiable at 10 ft. below the surface, and that only proper archaeological mitigation will ensure an accurate understanding of the extent of the burial ground. This report should be taken very seriously when considering the project development, as it clearly indicates that the Burial Ground may extend into, or dangerously close to, the project area.

The most likely opportunities for discovering human remains, however, are those associated with churches. At least one church, identified in 1835 and 1865 as Christ Church, and again on the 1905 Sanborn Map as First View Baptist Church, was across the street from Seabrook’s Warehouse. Churches are often associated with burial plots, and this potential must be taken into account. The laws and processes surrounding human remains are serious and extensive, and all parties should ensure that they are mitigated appropriately.


In this map of 1865, Seabrooks and Christs Church are both labeled on Grace Street (Defense of Washington 1895)In this map of 1865, Seabrooks and Christs Church are both labeled on Grace Street (Defense of Washington 1895)

Post-War Richmond

Finding historical sites throughout the area is inevitable: the Beers map from 1876 makes it clear how densely populated the area was with homes, businesses, warehouses, and other areas. As a well-known photograph taken in 1865 makes clear, the area was one of the few that was not destroyed by the Union during the War. This presents us with a remarkable opportunity to examine the material lives of those who lived in this neighborhood, White and Black, who adapted to the post-slavery world. This is particularly evident at Lumpkin’s Jail, which became a place devoted to African American education. The opportunity to examine this component of the past, the transition into a post-slavery world in a City so devoted to the cause of slavery, could be done in this neighborhood in a way it couldn’t in other areas. Other opportunities in this area may allow for similar comparative studies.

This photograph taken in 1865 shows the view of Shockoe Bottom from Church Hill, directly down Franklin Street (Richmond from Oregon Hill 1865)This photograph, taken in 1865 shows the view of Shockoe Bottom from Church Hill, directly down Franklin Street (Richmond from Oregon Hill 1865)

What’s Next: Publicly Engaged Archaeology

We are living in a city that is full of history, with important events and places from before its earliest European settlements through the 21st century. Among the most important of these for us to understand and remember are the sites related to slave trade and the enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived in Richmond. This is not debatable. Whether this project happens, these sites need to be memorialized and remembered. A broader challenge, however, is recognizing that in addition to the African American story, there are other pasts and stories that occurred in this space, and to recognize that we have a legal and ethical responsibility to either preserve their archaeological remnants in place, or make sure they are excavated before construction. It is incumbent upon the project developers to expand their understanding of what is historically significant, if not because they are good stewards of the past, then at least because the law will require it.

From a practical standpoint, it is also important for the project developers to take into consideration the money and time that historical research and archaeological excavation takes to complete. While creating more jobs, it will also cost more money and push the timeline: Lumpkin’s Jail required 5 months of excavation, and if there is a burial ground to mitigate, then this process could take a significant amount of time, since burial removal and relocation is an intricate and delicate process. The expected start date for this project, Spring of 2014, is not nearly enough time.

If the project happens, then I think that there are ways that the archaeology can benefit the City as a whole, and bring the city closer together by sharing the discovery of the past in a public, open, and engaged way.

It begins with the Richmond’s commitment to understanding the entire history of this space, not just one area during one era. Hiring archaeologists and historians who are committed to public interaction is key. The first step should include a comprehensive historical review of Shockoe Bottom, both within the development area and its immediate surroundings, to better understanding this space, the buildings in it, the people who lived there, and the area’s most significant components within the context of Richmond’s past. This should happen soon and it should be open and engaging. Scholars have all the tools at their disposal to make their research public, using digital tools to share their discoveries, photos, and maps through the use of a website, blog, and other social media channels. Doing this now has a number of benefits:

  1. It makes the mitigation of the project about public education, teaching, and community engagement, not about jumping through hoops. It makes this project about history and community.
  2. It creates a open dialogue between the public and the researchers. There is no better way to augment the hard work researching in the archives and pulling together maps and manuscripts than to encourage others who have previously researched this area or have oral histories and family collections that they would offer up for consideration.
  3. It begins a dialogue with the public that can carry into the excavation process, encouraging the public to visit, and possibly participate when appropriate, in the excavations at the site in person and digitally, learning about archaeology and Shockoe Bottom in the process. Public lectures, site visits, community excavation days, public lab days, and teacher education programs are all some of the possibilities for working with the public, changing archaeology from a hurdle in a regulatory process into a public benefit.
  4. It sets the table for a more complete online exhibit or museum that will examine the story of Shockoe Bottom in its entirety. This would be an excellent companion to the Slavery to Freedom Heritage Site, ensuring that other sites destroyed by the development are not entirely lost and, instead, can be shared and learned from publicly.

If the project moves forward, which is not an inevitability, this approach would ensure that the project is truly about Richmond, respecting its past, sharing it with the future, and ensuring that these important sites will not be forgotten. If the project does not move forward, consider this approach as a long-term strategy which should proceed regardless, albeit with the benefit of time, acknowledging that our changing city will continue to build, destroy, and rebuild for the future. That process should happen with the assurance that we will protect, research, and teach our shared past in a public way. By involving the public in all stages of this discovery, we guarantee that these sites will not be lost, and instead, give the public an opportunity to take ownership in their own past and future.

Special thanks to Dr. David Brown of the Fairfield Foundation for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this post. I also want to thank Dr. Matt Laird at the James River Institute for Archaeology for his comments regarding the Lumpkin’s Jail excavations, and to Jolene Smith of the Virginia Department for Historic Resources for helping me access the necessary archaeological reports.

Works Cited

Browning, L. E. (2008). Cedar & Broad Block Richmond City, Virginia Phase II Assessment Survey (No. 2) (pp. 1–49). Midlothian, Virginia: Browning & Associates, LTD.

Browning, L. E., & Houle, K. O. (2008). Cedar & Broad Block Richmond City, Virginia Phase I Intensive Cultural Resource Survey (No. 3) (pp. 1–104). Midlothian, Virginia: Browning & Associates, LTD.

Campbell, B. (2011). Richmond’s Unhealed History. Richmond, VA: Brandylane Publishers Inc.

Laird, M. R. (2010). Archaeological Data Recovery Investigation of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site (44HE1053) Richmond, Virginia (No. 1) (pp. 1–162). Williamsburg, Virginia: James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc.

Potterfield, T. T. (2009). Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

Reid, D., & Southerlin, B. (2008). Phase I Archaeological Study of the Cedar and Broad Block Richmond, Virginia (No. 1) (pp. 1–65). Archaeological Consultants of the Carolinas, Inc.

Primary Sources

Richmond Sentinel (4/11/1864), p. 2, c. 6 accessed via,_4_11_1864.htm.

“Richmond, from Oregon Hill, April 1865 (1865), Library of Congress, accessed via

“Defense of Washington. Extract of military map of N.E. Virginia showing forts” (1895) LC Civil War maps (2nd ed.), 99; Civil War maps in the National Archives, 8; Phillips, 1353; LeGear. Atlases of the United States, 266. Accessed via David Rumsey Map Collection,–Extract-of-?qvq=mgid:40776&mi=0&trs=5

“Composite: Richmond, VA” (1876) by F.W. Beers in Illustrated Atlast of the City of Richmond, VA accessed via David Rumsey Map Collection,–Richmond,-Va-?qvq=mgid:40776&mi=4&trs=5

“Plan of the city of Richmond drawn from actual survey and regional plans” (1835) by Micajah Bates, Virginia Historical Society. Accessed via

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