The human bones found on the New Haven Green in the wake of Hurricane Sandy may have come from the bodies of two adults and two children, according to early tests by the state archeologist.
The remains are also likely from official burials in colonial New Haven’s town
cemetery – now known as the Green. Brass tacks and nails recovered from the site, a chunk of earth uprooted with the “Lincoln Oak” during the storm, indicate that bones were interred in wooden caskets as part of a formal burial, said State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni. He expects to publish his final conclusions from the find in about a month.
Acid soil consumes clues
The detective work so far on the bones is a fascinating blend of history, archeology, paleopathology and soil science.
Clues to the background and identity of those unearthed in the storm are few thanks to the Connecticut’s acidic soil, which swiftly consumes soft tissue, wood and textiles, Bellantoni said. The fact that the Green’s soil is sandy is the only reason even bones survived the centuries, he added.
“It’s really unusual that we have these remains,” Bellantoni said. “The very sandy soil might have helped with preservation.”
Even so, those buried in 1700s were usually clad only in a flimsy shroud secured by pins, so clothing and other identifying object are rarely found in graves this old. Pine was often used for coffins and disintegrates quickly – no period wood was found except a few fragments clinging to nails.
Green grading brings up bodies
The Green’s central location plays a role in why the bones were shallow enough to be enmeshed in tree roots, Bellantoni said. Gravediggers in colonial New England covered coffins in 4 to 6 feet of soil, but grading projects on the Green in the 1800s scraped off several layers. (Center Church on the Green was built over part of the colonial cemetery, beginning in 1812.)
“They did some landscaping and grading, so what was once four to six feet is now two to three feet,” Bellantoni said. “[The remains] should have been much deeper.”
CSI meets History Channel
As for causes of death, the only ailment likely to show recognizable traces in bones this old is tuberculosis, Bellantoni said. Advanced TB can cause changes
in the bone and DNA from the disease-causing bacterium can be extracted from even ancient remains.
Tuberculosis was widespread in the colonies and even sparked New England-wide “vampire panics” in the 1800s: Hundreds of TB victims across the region were exhumed as presumed vampires, including a well-known case in Jewett City.
Because TB typically spreads with close contact and often within families, early victims were branded “vampires” who had preyed upon family members. The dead were then dug up and beheaded, or reburied face-down. Read about the Great New England Vampire Panics in this Smithsonian article.
Virulent smallpox leaves no traces
If the Green victims died of smallpox, which was epidemic in New England in the late 1700s, no traces would be found – and no virus would have survived to be detected.
“With smallpox, the pathogen dies with the host, and the host goes pretty quick,” Bellantoni said.
Chance for study
The Green remains offer a rare opportunity to study health and chronic conditions in Colonial Connecticut. “We will be doing forensic work to find pathologies and disease states on the bones,” Bellantoni said.
Once the studies are complete, the bones will be reburied with proper ceremony under the oversight of a New Haven committee set up by the mayor.
But despite the unique nature of the Green find, finding old bones in Connecticut isn’t that rare, Bellantoni added. He sees remains unearthed from unmarked gravesites around the state three or four times a year. “It happens more often than most people realize.”