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Discovery of 17th-century cemetery offers insight into Brazil’s colonial era

By Waldheim Garcia Montoya

Recife, Brazil, Mar 18 (EFE).- The recent discovery of a 17th-century cemetery in this northeastern Brazilian city offers fresh insight into the history of colonial Brazil and the war waged between the Dutch West India Company and the Portuguese Empire for control of that territory.

The archaeological remains were found in what for decades was a favela, or shantytown, of Recife’s Pilar neighborhood, located just meters from that major Atlantic port city’s historic downtown.

Homes in that district had been built for years in haphazard fashion, but with the revitalization of the old port zone and the establishment of an information and communications technology park those low-income residences began to be torn down in 2014.

In their place, a social housing project went up for the benefit of 600 needy families.

The first excavation work in that 6,000-square-meter (1.5-acre) favela led to the unearthing of ossuaries (bone depositories) and a large number of items dating back to the end of the 16th century and first decades of the 17th century, when Dutch forces coveting the region’s lucrative sugarcane production invaded and occupied Pernambuco (the captaincy to which Recife belonged).

A total of 27 skeletons were found during the first years of excavations at the site, as well as 40,000 objects and fragments. That archaeological work was halted, however, in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and was only resumed last September.

“We can say it was one of Brazil’s largest colonial cemeteries,” Ana Nascimento, a member of an archaeological research team at the Rural Federal University of Pernambuco and coordinator of the scientific team that will carry out its dig through 2023, told Efe.

“We started to have a notion of the existence of a cemetery, but we had to follow the builder’s excavation timetable. Only after resuming our work in September did we realize there were many more (skeletons) than we’d thought,” the archaeologist said.

Her team thus far has removed 110 skeletons with the physical characteristics of Europeans, according to forensic experts. But laboratory analysis must be conducted to determine if they were Portuguese, Dutch or colonists of both nationalities.

“There was no record of the existence of a cemetery there. Only a later map with a cross next to the location of the Pilar church, but with that alone we had no certainty whatsoever and even less so of its size,” Nascimento said.

That area of the city initially was the site of a flood embankment and then of Fort Sao Jorge, which was destroyed by the Dutch.

The cemetery was built at the site of the old fort, while a neighborhood founded on top of the cemetery had a tram system that was in operation until after World War II.

A portion of the ruins of the fort, the rails of the tram system, cobblestone streets and modern asphalt were all observable in different layers of soil uncovered through the excavation work.

“The important thing is we have an archaeological ensemble that tells the story from the end of the 16th century to the present day … showing the occupation of this space and how it was important to the history of Recife, Pernambuco and Brazil,” the archaeologist said.

“The skeletons tell the story: their lives, where they came from, who they were, what they ate, the cause of their death,” she added. “And there’s a lot of history to be told about the daily lives of the people who lived” in Pilar.



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