This summer, a team of archaeologists and volunteers began excavating a tract of land that had recently been acquired by New Jersey’s Red Bank Battlefield Park, the site of a pivotal Revolutionary War conflict. A series of four digs unearthed hundreds of artifacts, including a rare gold coin dating to 1766—a resounding success, in experts’ minds.
But toward the end of the project, a volunteer discovered something that the team had not been expecting to find: a human femur.
Subsequent investigations revealed additional remains belonging to 13 soldiers—likely Hessians, or German troops hired by the British to assist in campaigns against American revolutionaries, reports the New York Times’ Zach Zorich. Much to their surprise, the researchers had stumbled upon what they believed to be a mass grave.
“It was stunning. It was exciting. And it was sad at the same time,” says excavation leader Jennifer Janofsky, a historian at Rowan University as well as Red Bank Battlefield’s public historian, in a statement. “We didn't anticipate exhuming human remains. That was not a goal of this. There are maps that indicate burial spots. This is not one of them.”
The team found the remains in a former trench at Fort Mercer, which American forces built in 1777. Located on the shores of the Delaware River, the fort was part of efforts to weaken the British hold on Philadelphia by blockading the Delaware River and cutting off supplies sent from England.
When the Battle of Red Bank began on October 22, 1777, the rebels’ prospects did not look promising: Just 500 American soldiers were left to guard the fort against a force of 2,000 Hessians. And yet, the Americans prevailed; the battle was over in less than an hour. Just 14 American soldiers died, while Hessian casualties numbered 377. According to the website dedicated to the recent excavation, the battle represents “[o]ne of the greatest upsets of the Revolutionary War.”
The newly-discovered bones bear witness to the brutality of the conflict, showing wounds from musketballs and grapeshot that were fired onto the soldiers from within the fort or from ships on the river.
“These guys were being hit by all kinds of things,” Wade Catts, principal archaeologist of South River Heritage Consulting and leader of the scientific fieldwork, tells the Times. “What a horrible place this would have been.”
Researchers believe that the bones belong to Hessian soldiers based on artifacts that were found with the remains. Now, forensic anthropologists with the New Jersey State Police will work to extract DNA from the remains, with the goal of gleaning further insight into the lives of these long-forgotten soldiers.
“We're hoping that eventually, perhaps, we can find some of these individuals,” Janofsky says in the statement. “If we can extract their stories, and if we can tell their stories, it lets us put a name to a face. And that, to me, is a very powerful moment in public history.”
Experts are also performing skeletal assessments, along with isotopic and radiological analyses, on the remains, with the hope of gathering data on the soldiers’ life histories and health. Once the investigations are complete, the trench will be refilled and the bones will be reburied at another site, according to Matt Rourke and Shawn Marsh of the Associated Press (AP).
“The Hessian soldiers that are here—this was not the space they intended to end their lives in,” says Catts in the statement. “Part of what we are hoping to be able to achieve here is to learn who these soldiers were, who these men were, and give them some level of dignity and respect in reburial.”