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Posts Tagged ‘remains’

Medieval Child’s remains used to Demonstrate Soil Analysis

This Discovery news piece begins talking about the skeleton of a ten to thirteen year old child buried about eight hundred years ago. Experts can tell from analysis of a recent excavation that the child was being given mercury before they died, to treat a disease which can’t be identified. This leads onto a look at how the mercury was found: not from the bones, but from the surrounding soil. As Kaare Lund Rasmussen of the University of Southern Denmark explained “If we can localize an element in the soil in the immediate vicinity of the skeleton which is not normally found in the soil itself, we can assume that it came from the deceased and this can tell us something about how the person lived. We are not interested in death, but in the life before death.”

Ned Kelly’s remains to go to family, not developers

Excavation of mass grave at Pentridge Prison siteThe skeletal remains of 19th century Australian folk hero outlaw Ned Kelly were discovered in a mass grave on the site of the former Pentridge Prison in 2008. Unlike many of the more than 30 executed criminals buried in that grave, Kelly’s bones — minus the skull which is still missing — were in a box of their own, so experts from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine were able to examine them without having to sort out which bones amidst the jumble of bones belonged together. They were able to confirm that the skeleton bore the marks of wounds Ned Kelly had incurred on that fateful day in 1880 at the Glenrowan Inn when police finally caught him after a shootout; namely, partially healed gunshots in his toe, left elbow, and wrist and the shot to the shin that took him down.

Ned Kelly's confirmed bonesIt wasn’t until last year, however, that a mitochondrial DNA match with a great-grandnephew of Kelly’s established beyond question that the skeleton was all that remained of Ned Kelly. Once the determination was conclusively made, the government of the state of Victoria said it would return the skeleton to Kelly’s descendants for burial as they saw fit. There was some discussion of a public memorial service, some queasy back-and-forth with police representatives who were appalled at the idea of celebrating the life of a cop-killer, and debate over the potential tourist revenue vs. the distaste of Ned Kelly fans making a shrine out of his new grave.

Ned Kelly, taken the day before his execution on November 11, 1880Then it all came to a screeching halt when real estate developer Leigh Chiavaroli, owner of Pentridge Village, the company that owns the area of Pentridge Prison where the mass grave was discovered, laid claim to the remains. They were found on his property, was his argument; therefore they were his, and he wanted to keep them to put them on public display in a museum on the site. He also wanted three million Australian dollars in compensation for the building delays caused by the excavation of the mass grave.

The prospect of their ancestor’s bones being made a public spectacle appalled Ned Kelly’s relations. As it is, his body had not been treated with anything like decency, from the moment of his death onward. On November 10th, 1880, the day before his hanging, Ned Kelly dictated a letter to the colonial Governor of Victoria, George Phipps, 2nd Marquess of Normanby, that closed with his last wishes. He couldn’t write the letter himself because of the gunshot wound to his wrist, so William Buck, warder at Melbourne Gaol where Kelly was imprisoned, hanged and initially buried, wrote it for him. Ned signed it with his mark, a large X over his name. You can see a photocopy of the complete letter here, and, courtesy of the Public Records of Victoria website, you can download a huge image of the entire Kelly capital case file here. The letter in question is about halfway down. His final requests are just above the signatures in that letter:

Ned Kellys final wishesI have been found guilty and condemned to death on a charge of all men in the world I should be the last one to be guilty of. There is one wish in conclusion I would wish you to grant me, that is the release of my Mother before my execution as detaining her in prison could not make any difference to the forementioned. For the day will come when all men will be judged by their mercy and deeds and also if you would grant permission for my friends to have my body that they might bury it in Consecrated ground.

Ellen Kelly (third from the left, seated) at the family homestead after her release from prison in 1881His mother Ellen Kelly was also imprisoned in Melbourne Gaol at that time, condemned to three years hard labour for her supposed role (the charges were widely seen as trumped up in retaliation against her son) in the attempted murder of a police constable. Neither of his final wishes was granted. His mother served her full term, 1878-1881, and Ned’s body was not buried in consecrated ground. It wasn’t even just peaceably buried.

A young and snazzy Ellen Kelly in costumeVictorian Institute of Forensic Medicine experts found the marks of a cutting saw on some of the bones, proving that despite all their vehement public denials, the authorities at Melbourne Gaol had allowed his corpse to be dissected. By law, dissection was only allowed in case of a coroner’s inquest when it was necessary to determine cause of death. It was a big scandal at the time that Ned Kelly’s mortal remains had been so violated against custom and law.

His skull had been given to phrenologists to make an in-depth “scientific” study of and then returned to the police, who used it as a paperweight. When the contents of the Melbourne Gaol graves were moved to Pentridge Prison in 1929, workers took a skull they thought was Ned Kelly’s and kept it for decades. The police kept theirs for decades too, but by the time both skulls wound up in the hands of experts at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in the 1970s, experts found that neither skull was Ned’s. Ned Kelly’s skull remains on the lam.

On Wednesday, August 1st, the Victoria State Government stopped the rollercoaster Ned Kelly’s bones have been riding. They issued a new exhumation license for his remains, a legal maneuver that ensures the Kelly descendants will receive his remains.

They will bury what’s left of Ned in consecrated ground, as he asked, probably in Greta Cemetery where Ned’s mother Ellen is buried. The descendants have to make the decision as a group so there’s some discussion to be done before the details are pinned down, but it seems likely that they’ll opt for a private burial ceremony.


Rare remains of soldier found at Waterloo

Skeleton found in shallow grave on the field of WaterlooLast Friday, June 8th, Belgian archaeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of a soldier killed during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Buried under just 15 inches of soil, the position of the skeleton suggests the young man died where he fell and was hastily covered with a thin layer of dirt, probably by his comrades. This is a very rare find. The victorious armies cleared the battlefield of their dead, and the defeated French were eventually buried on site in mass graves. It’s the first time in a century that a body from the Napoleonic wars has been found on a Belgian battlefield, and this one is almost entirely undisturbed.

Lion MoundWaterloo was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, which is why there is a man-made conical hill called the Lion Mound memorializing the spot where the Prince of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne, was hit in the shoulder by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo. The soldier’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Lion Mound.

Unfortunately his skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers prepping the area for the upcoming demolition and re-construction of the visitor’s center, shops, hotels and parking lots. The Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant took over and excavated the rest of the skeleton, finding it almost complete. Only the skull, one foot and some hand bones are missing.

Coins found with skeletonThe body was spared any Thénardier-style looting. Coins were found in his pocket, one of them a half franc from 1811, the others too corroded to identify immediately. Experts are cleaning them now. He was also carrying a flint and a small red sphere in his right pocket. Next to his body were discovered a spoon and an unidentified wooden object, possibly a rifle butt, with the initials “C.B.” carved into it.

Wood fragment with initials "C.B." carved into itHis uniform has rotted away but his leather epaulets survived. Archaeologists are hoping they will be able to identify the soldier’s regiment from the epaulets, and possibly from the spoon if it’s army-issue. If they can discover his regiment, they’ll probably be able to find his name on the combatant records. The initial analysis of the bones indicates that he was around 20 years old, 5’1″ tall and had abrasion grooves on his molars from tearing opening gunpowder tubules with his teeth.

Musket ball in his ribcageOne particularly poignant artifact was a musket ball found inside the soldier’s ribcage. This is probably the smoking gun, as it were: he took a bullet to the chest, then either retreated or was carried by comrades 100 yards or so behind the front line. The location of his burial was 100 meters (109 yards) behind the British front line, close to the Duke of Wellington’s army infirmary. It’s highly unlikely that a French soldier would have fallen in this position. Although we don’t know for sure yet, the soldier was probably British.

The British cleared the field of their dead after their victory, burying them in consecrated ground. This fellow could have been overlooked because he was buried, albeit shallowly, where he died. The French dead, in contrast, remained unburied for days, their bodies robbed by locals, until they were put in mass graves and burned with quicklime.

There is some footage of the skeleton being examined in the lab and of the battlefield in this BBC News video.


Medieval Ship Remains in Ground over Funds

In 2009, builders discovered the remains of a medieval ship buried and preserved beneath a warehouse in Talinn. Radiocarbon dates on wooden fragments revealed the ship was built between 1210 and 1280, and experts realised that over half the ship was intact. This makes it the best preserved medieval ship ever found in Estonia, and a rich ground for archaeologists. However, the ship is staying buried for the time being, because there simply isn’t the money in the relevant budgets to dig. What will happen is a special protected status will be placed on the boat, so it’s ready for the future.

Remains of Bronze Age Culture Found in Caucasus

A joint Russo-German expedition to the Russian regions of the Caucasus has discovered the remains of a previously forgotten Bronze Age civilization. Dating back to between the sixteenth to fourteenth century BC, the remains cover sixty miles, with stone built architecture and bronze items, and are in good condition. The researchers worked from black and white pictures taken during the era of communist Russia, allied to modern systems like GPS. The BBC has more details

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Returning American Indian human remains

One of the basic human rights, it seems, is to be able to control the disposition of the remains of your ancestors and relatives. All 50 states in the U.S. have laws controlling and protecting human remains.

American Indians rights to protect their ancestors have not been protected in the United States until very recently. Indian remains were collected by the federal government and numerous educational facilities and universities etc.

Federal laws in 1989, for the Smithsonian system, and in 1990, for any institution that receives federal funding, required investigations by these institutions into the human remains, burial objects, and sacred items of American Indian peoples. The institutions have to categorize these items, publicize their holdings, and return items to identifiable descendants and tribal groups.

Needless to say, this has taken a long time. First, it took five years for the federal government to develop the regulations to enact the 1990 law, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The press reported recently on the “Long road home for Indian remains.”

Notwithstanding the 1989 and 1990 laws, as of 2010, the remains of more than 160,000 Indians were still stored at federal agencies and museums that receive public funds.

The Smithsonian Institution estimates that as of Dec., 31, 2010, three-quarters of the Indian human remains it has been able to identify (4,330 out of 5,9800 and nearly half of the funerary objects (99,550 out of 2112,220) have been repatriated.

It could take many more years to return all of the remains.

The Government Accountability Office states that the process of identifying and returning skeletal remains and sacred objects buried with them is handled unevenly across eight federal agencies. When remains are identified, public notification is spotty, and the agencies do a poor job of tracking and reporting their own repatriation efforts, said Anu Mittal, who heads the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team.

And none of the agencies the GAO reviewed, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was in full compliance with the laws Congress passed two decades ago, she told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on June 16. Full repatriation “may take several more decades to complete.”

Ted Isham, the historical preservation officer for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, told the Senate panel that the spirit of the law isn’t being met because tribes “carry almost the full burden” when making claims that the objects and remains belong to them.

Of the 160,000 Native Americans stored at federal agencies and museums, according to the National Park Service, more than 120,000 awaited disposition because they had yet to be linked to a particular tribe, but sadly only about half of the 41,000 whose heritage had been pinpointed had been returned or were in the process.

Mexican Yaqui remains returned from New York museum

As I blogged a few days ago, the repatriation movement (the return) of human remains and other items from museums and educational institutions to their rightful owners and communities continues to grow stronger.

The press reports that Northern Mexico’s Yaqui people buried their lost warriors after a two-year effort to rescue the remains from New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where they laid in storage for more than a century.

The burial on November 16 capped an unprecedented effort by U.S. and Mexican Indian tribes to press both governments to bring justice and closure to the 1902 massacre by Mexican troops that killed about 150 Yaqui men, women and children.

“They would not be at peace with their souls and conscience until they got their people back to their land,” said Jose Antonio Pompa of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The 12 skulls and other remains were buried in Vicam, a traditional Yaqui town in western Sonora state in Mexico.

The Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona took up the fight to have the bones returned.

“The approach we use is that we are one people . . . the border is just an artificial concept,” said Robert Valencia, vice chairman of the Pascua Yaquis.

U.S. Indian remains are protected under the North American Indian Graves Protection Act. But the law does not address Mexican remains held in the United States so the Arizona tribe contacted the Mexican Yaquis and they in turn contacted the Mexican government, which also decided to get involved.

Sidepoint – The remains were apparently collected by a U.S. anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka who hacked off the heads of the massacre victims and boiled them to remove the flesh to study Mexico’s “races.” He sent the resulting collection to the New York museum.

This “study” reminds me of the presumed science of phrenology in the 19th and 20th centuries in which the study of the shapes of skulls was thought to provide scientific evidence and different peoples and races. The surgeon general of the U.S. Army, for example, issued an order in about 1860 for U.S. soldiers to collect American Indian heads so these types of study could be conducted on American Indians.

Edwin Booth’s remains may testify to John Wilkes’

Junius, Edwin & John Wilkes Booth in Julius CaesarDescendants of renowned Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth want to exhume his body so that his DNA can be compared to the DNA from the remains of the man who died in the Garrett farm barn after being shot by federal troops chasing the assassins of President Abraham Lincoln. Why, you ask? To confirm that John Wilkes Booth is buried in John Wilkes Booth’s grave.

We know the man who died in a barn as John Wilkes Booth, presidential assassin, Edwin’s brother and a far less successful actor, but a conspiracy theory posits that John Wilkes Booth never died in the barn, that the man buried in Wilkes’ grave was someone else entirely who was just bringing Booth his papers only to get killed by federales in the Garrett barn. Wilkes, this theory has it, escaped West changing his name multiple times and ultimately dying by his own hand (he took strychnine) in Oklahoma in 1903.

One of Edwin Booth’s descendants, Joanne Hulme, was told by her mother that it was a family secret that Wilkes had escaped, but the main source of the story is a book published in 1907 by lawyer Finis Bates. In The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth : or, The First True Account of Lincoln’s Assassination, Containing a Complete Confession by Booth, Bates described meeting a man named John St. Helen in Texas in 1873. Although a tobacco merchant, St. Helen was adept at reciting Shakespeare, and one time when he thought he was going to die, he confessed his secret. Later he filled in all kinds of detail, like that the leader of the conspiracy was none other than Vice President Andrew Johnson himself.

David E. George's embalmed corpseSt. Helen and Bates parted ways shortly thereafter, but when one David E. George died in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903, papers on him asked that Finis Bates be notified. When he arrived, he recognized the arsenic-embalmed body as that of his old friend John St. Helen. (The corpse would go on to have a far more successful entertainment career on the sideshow circuit than John Wilkes had ever had in the theater.)

Bates says in the book that he didn’t believe St. Helen’s confession at first, but there is a record of him writing to the War Department in 1900 offering to deliver Lincoln’s assassin alive if they’d pay him the $100,000 reward they posted in 1865. Since that reward had already been paid to the men who trapped Booth in the barn, the War Department declined.

The book was roundly ridiculed when it was published, but various versions of the wrong body theory have continued to spread, including on shady History Channel “documentaries.” In 1995, another of Edwin Booth’s descendants Lois Trebisacci asked to exhume Wilkes’ body to put the question to rest once and for all.

In 1995, a judge in Baltimore denied her request to exhume the remains of the man believed to be John Wilkes Booth in an effort to confirm his identity, her attorney, Mark Zaid of Washington, said yesterday. He said the cemetery objected to an exhumation, even though he had secured permission from 26 living relatives.

“The family was as much interested in disproving [the escape] theory as they were in proving it,” he said by phone.

Since that avenue is closed off, the interested parties now want to go about it in a roundabout way: by exhuming Edwin Booth’s body and comparing the DNA to bone fragments from the barn assassin preserved at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. and the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

The family’s attorney Mark Zaid plans to file an exhumation request for Edwin’s body, interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, early this year.


1863 — A Night Battle, Over a Week Since — Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier by Walt Whitman

May 12, 1863

A Night Battle, Over a Week Since.

May 12. There was part of the late battle at Chancellorsville, (second Fredericksburgh,) a little over a week ago, Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday, under Gen. Joe Hooker, I would like to give just a glimpse of — (a moment’s look in a terrible storm at sea — of which a few suggestions are enough, and full details impossible.) The fighting had been very hot during the day, and after an intermission the latter part, was resumed at night, and kept up with furious energy till 3 o’clock in the morning. That afternoon (Saturday) an attack sudden and strong by Stonewall Jackson had gain’d a great advantage to the southern army, and broken our lines, entering us like a wedge, and leaving things in that position at dark. But Hooker at 11 at night made a desperate push, drove the secesh forces back, restored his original lines, and resumed his plans. This night scrimmage was very exciting, and afforded countless strange and fearful pictures. The fighting had been general both at Chancellorsville and northeast at Fredericksburgh. (We hear of some poor fighting, episodes, skedaddling on our part. I think not of it. I think of the fierce bravery, the general rule.) One corps, the 6th, Sedgewick’s, fights four dashing and bloody battles in thirty-six hours, retreating in great jeopardy, losing largely but maintaining itself, fighting with the sternest desperation under all circumstances, getting over the Rappahannock only by the skin of its teeth, yet getting over. It lost many, many brave men, yet it took vengeance, ample vengeance.

But it was the tug of Saturday evening, and through the night and Sunday morning, I wanted to make a special note of. It was largely in the woods, and quite a general engagement. The night was very pleasant, at times the moon shining out full and clear, all Nature so calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the trees — yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying helpless, with new accessions to them, and every minute amid the rattle of muskets and crash of cannon, (for there was an artillery contest too,) the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass. Patches of the woods take fire, and several of the wounded, unable to move, are consumed–quite large spaces are swept over, burning the dead also — some of the men have their hair and beards singed — some, burns on their faces and hands — others holes burnt in their clothing. The flashes of fire from the cannon, the quick flaring flames and smoke, and the immense roar — the musketry so general, the light nearly bright enough for each side to see the other — the crashing, tramping of men — the yelling — close quarters — we hear the secesh yells — our men cheer loudly back, especially if Hooker is in sight — hand to hand conflicts, each side stands up to it, brave, determin’d as demons, they often charge upon us — a thousand deeds are done worth to write newer greater poems on — and still the woods on fire — still many are not only scorch’d — too many, unable to move, are burn’d to death Then the camps of the wounded — O heavens, what scene is this? — is this indeed humanity — these butchers’ shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from 200 to 300 poor fellows — the groans and screams — the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees — that slaughter-house! O well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them — cannot conceive, and never conceiv’d, these things. One man is shot by a shell, both in the arm and leg — both are amputated — there lie the rejected members. Some have their legs blown off — some bullets through the breast — some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out — some in the abdomen — some mere boys — many rebels, badly hurt — they take their regular turns with the rest, just the same as any — the surgeons use them just the same. Such is the camp of the wounded — such a fragment, a reflection afar off of the bloody scene — while over all the clear, large moon comes out at times softly, quietly shining. Amid the woods, that scene of flitting souls — amid the crack and crash and yelling sounds — the impalpable perfume of the woods — and yet the pungent, stifling smoke — the radiance of the moon, looking from heaven at intervals so placid — the sky so heavenly — the clear-obscure up there, those buoyant upper oceans — a few large placid stars beyond, coming silently and languidly out, and then disappearing — the melancholy, draperied night above, around. And there, upon the roads, the fields, and in those woods, that contest, never one more desperate in any age or land — both parties now in force — masses — no fancy battle, no semi-play, but fierce and savage demons fighting there — courage and scorn of death the rule, exceptions almost none.

What history, I say, can ever give — for who can know — the mad, determin’d tessle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads — as this — each steep’d from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports? Who know the conflict, hand-to-hand — the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing moonbeam’d woods — the writhing groups and squads — the cries, the din; the cracking guns and pistols — the distant cannon–the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths — the indescribable mix — the officers’ orders, persuasions, encouragements — the devils fully rous’d in human hearts — the strong shout, Charge, men, charge — the flash of the naked sword, and rolling flame and smoke? And still the broken, clear and clouded heaven–and still again the moonlight pouring silvery soft its radiant patches over all. Who paint the scene, the sudden partial panic of the afternoon, at dusk? Who paint the irrepressible advance of the second division of the Third corps, under Hooker himself, suddenly order’d up — those rapid-filing phantoms through the woods? Who show what moves there in the shadows, fluid and firm — to save; (and it did save,) the army’s name, perhaps the nation — as there the veterans bold the field. (Brave Berry falls not yet — but death has mark’d him — soon be falls.)

Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier.

Of scenes like these, I say, who writes — whoe’er can write the story? Of many a score — aye, thousands, north and south, of unwrit heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations — who tells? No history ever — no poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all — those deeds. No formal general’s report, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest — our boys — our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands,) crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death-shot — there sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass and soil, with red blood — the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by — and there, haply with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him — the eyes glaze in death — none recks — perhaps the burial-squads, in truce, a week afterwards, search not the secluded spot — and there, at last, the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown.