Uncovering a Mystery
Source Newsroom: Indiana State University
Newswise — For decades, a farmer rotated planting his corn and soybean seeds in a field, little suspecting what lay a few feet further below where his plow chiseled through the Indiana earth.
In 2005, when the city of Terre Haute received the donated land for a fire and police training area, officials, too, knew nothing of what lay underground.
“This was a cornfield and bean field, you know crop rotation, but all this area was nothing but rows of corn,” said Norm Loudermilk, Terre Haute Fire Department assistant chief. “I had no idea that anything was out here. There were no maps. There was no markings. There was nothing.”
A backhoe digging a trench for a water line uncovered what had been forgotten: an old county home cemetery. Now, an Indiana State University professor and students are piecing together the clues of those buried there, including discovering how many have lain at rest since at least the late 1800s.
“Whenever the backhoe came through to dig the water line, it seems they went through in total about 12 graves,” said Shawn Phillips, ISU associate professor of anthropology. “That stopped whenever the backhoe operator found a skull.”
Now in the first phase of a multi-phase process, ISU students work with Phillips running a ground penetrating radar to discover the boundaries of the old cemetery and how many graves may exist at the site. The next phase, which could come in the spring depending on approval, the students would work to remove and relocate the so-far untouched graves at the site.
“What I would like to see happen is that over the next couple of years, these graves be removed, that they be buried properly in a cemetery with a marker [noting] they’re former residents of the county home, with all the dignity they deserve,” Loudermilk said.
Students also screen piles of dirt removed by the backhoe to find bone fragments, coffin wood, nails and buttons – remains of those who came to live and die at the Vigo County Home for the poor.
“We found a finger bone that I could tell had a stain that was from a ring and moments later we also found a ring with it,” Phillips said. “It was a wedding ring.”
The 15 students working on the project as part of a class in bioarcheology field methods collect the bone pieces and fragments, the pieces of life that was, to reassemble the disturbed individuals so they can be reburied at another cemetery. Students lift buckets of dirt, carted from the pile dug by the backhoe, and dump the dirt on screens. As students run their hands through the dirt, clumps break apart into fine pieces and fall down to create an upside down-cone of dirt below. In the crumbling dirt, students’ fingers grasp buttons, bone shards and other pieces of an earlier life and death.
“It’s a little mystery to solve,” said Sharon Johnson a junior anthropology and criminology major from Bossier City, La. “You don’t know exactly what went on while it was here, but with each grave we dig up, we each piece we find, we find more clues to that mystery.”
Tiffany Grossman, a graduate student in earth and quaternary sciences, used the ground penetrating radar to map out the cemeteries perimeter, before working to sift through excavation’s back dirt.
“I like to find out about people and how they lived in the past, diseases that they may have had and other conditions,” she said.
Phillips and the students have begun to piece together that mystery. One grave contains a man, “probably well over six feet tall,” Phillips said. “An elderly female rests next to him. The next grave contains a woman in her 30s, who lays next to a man with achondroplasia, which causes dwarfism. The finding of glass shards tells the scientists that the people were buried from 1870 to 1910 as that’s when funeral homes used glass viewing plates on coffins.
“Students have taken field schools and they’ve taken a course with me, like forensic anthropology, where they get to learn how to study human remains, how they learn to get information from them, but this is extremely rare,” Phillips said. “This is the first time in my 20 years of doing this kind of work where I’ve been able to link up an actual course with students getting to work on a cemetery site.”
Cemeteries rarely are moved, according to Phillips.
“I just think it’s the belief system behind when someone’s interred that they should stay there is the reason cemeteries aren’t excavated that frequently,” he said. “But circumstances, situations come up that cemeteries occasionally do have to be moved.”
In addition to their finds on the sifting trays, students gather experience for their futures.
“My ultimate goal is to be able to do the same thing, but overseas helping locate and recover soldier’s bodies,” Johnson said. “I thought this would be really good practice.”
Shawn Phillips, ISU associate professor of anthropology, sifts through dirt looking for pieces of the graves. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Ethan Ellis shovels dirt from the pile that the backhoe lifted from the graves. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell
Martin Maynard, Shawn Phillips, Kelly Norton and Leah Newton sift through dirt on the trays. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell