C. Everett Koop, the nation’s former surgeon general, once speculated that people are fascinated by human skeletal remains because, “It’s the last part of us to disappear.” When construction crews found a complete human skeleton on July 18, 2005, in the upstate New York Village of Mt. Morris, the townspeople’s reactions amply illustrated Koop’s remark.
The skeleton found just 42 in. below the center of Chapel Street caused the construction worker employed by Sealand Contractors Corp. who was digging there to “fly from the hole.” Soon the police were called, and the yellow tape went up indicating a crime scene was under investigation.
The story of a body buried under a road quickly spread through the coffee shops and a crowd began to grow. The rumor mill’s best bets were that the skeleton was a mafia hit or the body of a local fellow who disappeared in 1970. Far less ominous but a lot more interesting, the well-preserved skeleton proved to be a pioneer woman from the late 1700s, buried in what was then a church cemetery yard.
Police, forensic experts, and a forensic archeologist quickly ruled out criminal intent. Coffin hardware, including wooden screws, made it immediately apparent that this was a formal burial and not a crime scene.
Within days, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department returned to the pile of dirt and debris already removed from the hole and found two other skull fragments and foot bones belonging to a second or third individual. Suddenly the village’s ambitious, long-awaited $17-million highway paving and water line replacement project was looking down the barrel of gun loaded with both moral and practical decisions.
Should they go looking for more bones or just pave over the excavation and call it complete? Village of Mt. Morris Mayor Harold Long weighed in with his opinion, being quoted in a local newspaper regarding the “carnival atmosphere” surrounding the discovery as being in poor taste.
“This was a person,” Long said. ”It’s my personal bias that we should hold a non-denominational service and reinter the remains in the town cemetery.”
The CSI Effect — Forensics in the Forefront
Who was this early resident then living in a part of the country still occupied largely by Native Americans? Jennifer Pfeiffer, forensic anthropologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was one of the first people called to the grave site by the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department, and it was her job to find out. The medical examiner’s office had alerted her that there was a “body found under the road.” Arriving around noon, she said they had properly removed the body by 5 p.m. — approximately 200 years after it was lowered into the ground.
Because the construction of homes over the years along Chapel Street also had removed several feet of dirt, the body was now in a very shallow grave. In fact, a water pipe project that was hand dug around 1910 to 1920 had come within inches of unearthing the woman’s burial site.
“Construction workers shouldn’t avoid notifying authorities when something like this appears,” said Pfeiffer, a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville’s famous school for studying forensics, who also is working on a doctorate degree from the University of Buffalo. Her specialty is determining the ethnicity of remains by studying skulls.
“It’s important to be able to look at and analyze the skeleton in its original context and not just go after it with a backhoe,” she added. Archeological techniques, simply described, require removing dirt from the site layer by layer. The thing that excited Pfeiffer, who works with human remains on a daily basis, was the remarkable state of preservation of the Mt. Morris skeleton. Buried in what Pfeiffer calls “huge banks of sand that were once Genesee River bed,” she said the well-drained location helped preserve the remains.
Archeology and its techniques can take years to be done correctly, but the concerns of law enforcement and the construction schedule made it advisable for Pfeiffer to work as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
“I’ve never seen a body this old in this state of preservation,” said Pfeiffer. Hair remains on the skull and the teeth are intact. “Hot and dry are the best conditions for preservation you can ask for.”
Pfeiffer’s investigation determined that the skeleton is female, 30 to 50 years old, between 5 ft. 8 in. and 6 ft. 3 in. tall and either African or Caucasian.
The next step is to examine the remains with regard to state and federal guidelines for resource management. Basically there are three phases to be done to determine what happens next. They are:
• reconnaissance — what do we have here?,
• deeper investigation — is this person part of a group/tribe, and
• remove and secure the remains if determined to be historically important, with possible museum donation — for the public good — in mind.
For Eric Thompson, the NYSDOT (Region 4) project supervisor, the day of the skeleton’s discovery began just like any other. He said in more than 21 years with DOT he never before has encountered human remains on a job site.
“I was in my office,” he said, when the Village of Mt. Morris Street Superintendent Patsy Zangaro called to say ’Guess what we found?’ When I heard it was a skeleton, I said, ’Oh boy.’”
Thompson’s immediate task was to answer questions from law enforcement about any previous construction activity in the area to help determine what they found.
This project, a basic re-build from the ground up of Routes 36 and 408, which carry heavy traffic through the historically-significant village, has been in the works since initial planning meetings began in 1997. The roads affected are being completely dug out, so that new drainage and underground utility work can be put in, plus improved curbs and sidewalks are being added, as well as a small park to honor local hero Francis Blamey, the Mt. Morris native who wrote the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
Actual construction work began in August 2004, and it’s expected to be completed by end of June 2007. The goal is to have nice looking roads that keep traffic moving, but also to make the village as pedestrian-friendly as possible. Mt. Morris, like so many upstate towns with beautiful homes, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and a nearby state park, is being challenged to remain commercially vibrant in today’s world while still maintaining its rural charm.
As in all DOT projects, the design for this one was reviewed by the state historical preservation office, but reports failed to notice the possibility of a pioneer cemetery. After the discovery of the skeleton, a local town history buff provided law enforcement with some old maps that told the true tale of a cemetery that some believed was moved in 1818 to a location just up the street.
Digging for Answers
Thompson said that fortunately the work on this particular part of the project involved doing a water main tie-in. Once the skeleton was removed, temporary asphalt was laid over the former burial site. He said the decision to do a full site excavation in the area or to simply move on will involve a consensus on the part of the major players in this scenario including: NYSDOT, the NYS Historical Preservation Office, Federal Highway Administration, the Village of Mt. Morris, and the church that owned the original cemetery.
He said his office is counting on the Rochester Museum and Science Center to do the historical research needed for the DOT.
Thompson, who is a history buff, said his own personal preference is for a full recovery according to archeological procedures because, “I hate to think of people driving cars over the bodies of our ancestors,” he said. Fortunately Chapel Street is not a main thoroughfare, so the remainder of the construction could stay on schedule while a detour protects the site.
Conversations with Amie Alden, Livingston County historian, confirm that this is at least the third time in history that bodies have been discovered in this area where a cemetery is known to have existed between what is today Clinton and Stanley streets. Once the skeleton was discovered, Alden researched old newspaper clips and determined that putting in a natural gas main and water pipe projects over the years have led to skeletal remains being uncovered here before. Those remains were removed to the more recent cemetery.
Did they miss a few individuals? Now it’s up to federal, state, and local authorities to determine if our collective history requires that we look for more remains or just continue paving and placing pipes with an eye on progress and convenience instead.
In any event, the construction workers on Chapel Street will be keeping their eyes wide open just in case history repeats itself, again. CEG