Archaeologists at a public dig site in New Jersey have discovered human remains and artifacts belonging to soldiers in the American Revolution.
The excavation, conducted by a team of more than 100 volunteers from the Gloucester County Archeological Society and nearby Rowan University, discovered what appeared to be a mass grave of soldiers at Red Bank Battlefield park in South Jersey. Officials said the remains appear to be from Hessian soldiers, German mercenaries who fought with the British army during the Revolution. Other artifacts recovered at the site included a gold coin, metal clothing accessories, and ammunition.
“On June 26 during the final hours of a public archaeology dig at the site of the battlefield’s Fort Mercer trench, a human femur was discovered,” Rowan University history professor, public historian, and director of the Red Bank Battlefield Park, Jennifer Janofsky, said in a press conference announcing the findings. Further excavation along the trench unearthed the remains of at least 13 Hessian soldiers who fought at the Battle of Red Bank in 1777, the South Jersey Courier-Post reported.
“This find is a remarkable discovery because a mass grave was a rarity on battlefields during the American Revolution,” South River Heritage Consulting principal archaeologist and dig site supervisor Wade Catts told reporters.
The dig also uncovered several items besides the remains: a 1766 gold guinea, stamped with the image of King George III, the equivalent of a soldier’s salary for a month, which the researchers said was extremely rare; a knee buckle from a soldier’s uniform that had trace remains of fabric and human blood; several buttons made of pewter and brass; and a number of musket balls and ammunition.
The artifacts were unveiled Tuesday, and will be displayed to the public again Wednesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The human remains have been transferred to the New Jersey State Police public forensic unit, which will conduct a series of tests on the bones, including a “skeletal assessment, isotopic, genetic and radiological analyses,” to find out more about the origin and history of the soldiers, and possibly connect them to their descendants.
The non-human items will eventually be showcased somewhere at the park, while the remains will be buried elsewhere. The trench will be filled in and protective fencing will be removed so that the site can be fully incorporated back into the park.
The trench, some four and a half feet deep, was part of a system of earthworks that extended around Fort Mercer, the outpost where the battle took place. According to the Inquirer, Gloucester County officials purchased a quarter-acre wooded parcel of land in 2020 that included much of the trench, and Janofsky was granted $19,000 by the New Jersey Historical Commission to conduct an excavation, which was originally expected to be a study of the trench itself. The trench extends further into an adjacent neighborhood, but digging has stopped for now.
The Battle of Red Bank took place on October 22, 1777. A force of about 1,200 Hessian soldiers advanced on Fort Mercer, intending to capture it to allow British ships to pass into occupied Philadelphia. But a force of about 400 Continental Soldiers repelled the attack. In total, the Hessians suffered more than 300 casualties, while just 14 Americans were killed and 27 wounded.
Much of the battle site itself has been covered by the rising of the Delaware River, but the remaining banks and nearby Whitall House are still part of the present-day park.