An interesting report on disturbances of medieval graves appeared this week (Medieval Graves were Disturbed for Surprising Reasons). Edeltraud Aspöck’s work reminded me of a minor but interesting detail from one of my excavations. In 1999, construction at the James W. Miller Learning Resources Center at St. Cloud State University disturbed the first Protestant cemetery in St. Cloud, MN. I was a professor there at the time and was given the job of a salvage excavation. The objectives were a)be expeditious and b) be respectful. The new library structure was well underway, with 3/4’s of its foundation in place, so options were fairly limited. At one point an unnamed official from the State of Minnesota told me “don’t turn this into one of those slow scientific excavations.” So, in the middle of a winter with temperatures reaching -20 we did an excavation. A hurried excavation in a Minnesota winter yields many tales (excavating frozen soils with a jackhammer, scooping up an entire grave from a precarious location with an oversize backhoe. . . .), but one small bone may tell the best tale.
The cemetery in question dates to the late 1850s and was associated with St. John’s Episcopalian Church. The burial ground was used as a burial ground for multiple Protestant churches, and it went out of use in the mid-1860s when St. John’s was moved to a new location. In 1864 the city established the North Star Cemetery, and urged residents to buy lots and move their loved ones “where, undisturbed, their remains may be until the coming of that day when the graves shall deliver their dead” (St. Cloud Democrat, 4 August 1864).
Our excavation identified twenty-one grave shafts, and ten of these graves contained substantial skeletal material in various conditions and levels of completeness. The other eleven graves were empty, with ample indicators that those buried there had been moved. Fragments of coffins were ubiquitous, and in several cases the lid of the coffin and the remains were absent. Other coffins were broken and left behind. Of the eleven graves that were moved in the 1860s, only four contained any skeletal remains, and these remains were quite minor. We can be pretty certain people were exhumed and moved to North Star.
The evidence speaks fairly loudly. Imagine trying to exhume these bodies in 1864. You are digging by hand, standing in a grave shaft 4-5 feet deep and trying to lift out a coffin which then breaks. So you remove the individual, and in almost every case, you leave nothing behind. If the coffins contained only skeletal remains, the bones would have spilled as coffins fragmented. Recovery of scattered bones from the shafts would have been difficult at best, and it is inconceivable that they would have recovered every tiny bone from the hands and feet. When the eleven deceased residents were moved from their graves, they were intact enough to stay together when being lifted from the shafts.
In four of the emptied graves, some skeletal material was left behind. In grave 6 we found a few teeth and skull fragments in the upper levels of the soils. This grave was heavily disturbed by construction in the 1930s, however, so the meaning of these fragments is uncertain. In grave 16 leg and pelvic fragments from a child were recovered, but like grave 6, this grave was heavily disturbed. Grave 17, also heavily disturbed, contained fragments from an adult size coffin but cranial fragments of an infant.
Grave 18, however, was only minorly disturbed. The grave shaft was for the most part completely empty. We found two buttons (Prosser, 16 line, 4 hole), and a manubrium. The manubrium is the upper part of the sternum. Place a finger on your throat below your chin, and slide downward. On the way down you will feel a small bone that moves when you talk or swallow–that’s your hyoid bone. Continue downward and you will find a notch of a solid bone that seems to continue straight down your chest–that’s your manubrium (or just look here and here).
I’ve occasionally pondered Grave 18 and I always come to the same conclusions. The absence of coffin fragments indicates the movers were able to lift the coffin out intact. Like most graves, there were no cloth remnants, only two small buttons. Burial shrouds often had one or two buttons at the neck, and these buttons were positioned near the manubrium. What I can say with certainty is that during the exhumation a bone fragment and two buttons from somewhere fell into Grave 18 as they were backfilling it. But I like to entertain this scenario: In 1864 they lifted the coffin successfully, removed the body from the coffin, and then dropped the body. The body hit the ground in a way that the shroud buttons popped off, and the manubrium was jarred loose from a partially decayed individual. Touch your manubrium again. Your skin is pretty thin there; it wouldn’t take much to expose that bone. That tale is not rock-solid science, but I think it is a pretty good fit to the evidence.
Credit: Dr. Debra Gold did the osteological analysis (with her students). Dr. Gold joined St. Cloud State University in 2000, after the excavation was complete. The excavation results were published in Rothaus, Richard, and Debra Gold. 2002. ‘The Grave Was Unmarked And Had Long Been Forgotten’: The First Protestant Cemetery Of St. Cloud, Minnesota (21-SN-0136). Minnesota Archaeologist 60:23-50.