Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)




Michael Blakey

Committee Member

Joseph L. Jones

Committee Member

Audrey J. Horning


In 1994, during construction at the Kontos Medical Science Building on the campus of the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU Health), a well was discovered containing a commingled deposit of at least 44 adults and nine children dating to the antebellum industrial period of Richmond, Virginia. Dubbed the “East Marshall Street Well” (EMSW), a descendant-led ethical clientage model (Blakey, 2020) was put into effect between Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), The Institute for Historical Biology (IHB), and the local black Richmond community. Following research recommendations developed by the Family Representative Council, this study entails biogeochemical profiling to construct lived experiences from Ancestral Human Remains recovered at the EMSW. Research goals include: understanding how can isotope data help us identify discrete individuals from a commingled assemblage of human remains for reburial and memorialization? Furthermore, what does dental analysis contribute to a broader understanding of diet, geographic origin, and migration for EMSW ancestors?A novel, minimally destructive dental sampling methodology allows for a small sample of dental enamel to be analyzed via laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to render elemental concentration data along a chronological axis. The dental data is compared to EMSW bone data previously collected by researchers at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where the Ancestral Remains were curated until recently to reveal the diet of enslaved urban industrialized workers. This study looks at four isotopes associated with diet (δ13Ccollagen, δ13Ccarbonate, δ18Ocarbonate, and δ15Ncollagen) that were sampled from bone. Smithsonian researchers took samples from one African site and 11 sites across the Mid-Atlantic region. Isotope data samples, differentiated by ethnic group, were placed on a scatter plot to reveal the EMSW Ancestors samples had a similar regional origin to the other Mid-Atlantic samples; they relied heavily on maize but little on marine resources. Using LA-ICP-MS analysis, the elemental concentrations 88Sr and 128Ba were compared in ratio to 43Ca to construct the trophic level of EMSW ancestors. Until a larger sample size is collected nothing concrete can be deduced, until then this thesis acts as a pilot study for my future dissertation providing clues where further research is necessary.



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