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Mississippi State University archaeologists Derek Anderson and Forrest Follett remove the soil from the lid of one of 66 graves discovered at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. (Photo: Courtesy of University of Mississippi Medical Center)

Four years ago, teams doing some minor roadwork at the University of Mississippi Medical Center found 66 coffins underneath the clay. They were from the era of the former Mississippi State Asylum, a mental institution which had housed some of the southern state’s most unfortunate citizens for nearly a century before the modern hospital opened at the same site.

Previous graves had been unearthed, like the 44 found nearby in the early 1990s. Experts have said more remains may have been awaiting discovery.

But the estimates now far exceed was what thought years ago. Some 7,000 graves are thought to be on the campus, according to the local newspaper The Clarion-Ledger.

The massive collection of remains could offer an unparalleled forensic look into a slice of medical history. But getting the money to do the digging, cataloging and laboratory work will be a challenge, say experts.

James Roncki of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research measures one of 66 coffins discovered on the grounds of the University Mississippi Medical Center in 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of University of Mississippi Medical Center)

The state of Mississippi is already strapped for cash as it tries to keep up with current infrastructure and education costs, said Molly Zuckerman, a biological anthropologist at Mississippi State University, who has done some of the first investigations at the site.

The bodies from the Mississippi State Asylum will require major funding to properly investigate and ethically handle, Zuckerman told Forensic Magazine.

“Removal of the bodies will cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars because ethical and professional standards within archaeology have to be followed in their removal,” she said.  “However, there are very, very few grants available, whether private or federal (public), which cover excavation expenses, and none that I know of are large enough to cover anticipated removal costs.”

The thousands of patients apparently died at the insane asylum between its opening in 1855 and the 1935 closing. (The modern medical campus started operations in 1955.)

The cost of excavating and reburying the bodies could be staggering: $21 million total, according to local news accounts. The alternate plan is to begin an in-house operation for more than $3 million over eight years, which includes the establishment of a memorial and laboratory to study the remains, according to the newspaper.

The asylum over its 80-year history in Jackson treated thousands of patients—many of whom apparently died in the state’s care and were then buried without markers at the site far to the east of the actual asylum grounds.

Shortly after finding the 66 graves from the roadwork in 2013, hospital officials began a parking garage construction project. But underground radar revealed a total of 2,000 coffins resting underground on the land, the newspaper reported. Further investigation indicates that 7,000 graves total are spread across the grounds.

The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1855 and closed in 1935. (Photo: Courtesy of University of Mississippi Medical Center)

SOME EARLY FINDINGS

Zuckerman and some colleagues at Mississippi State, as well as at Texas State University and elsewhere, have begun to present some of the findings from the 66 bodies unearthed during the road project. Three projects from the Mississippi State Asylum investigators were presented at last month’s annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology in New Orleans, Zuckerman said.

One involved sequencing the bacterial DNA from the teeth of four skeletons, to determine the prevalence of disease in the pre-antibiotic era of the beginning of the 20th century. Another focused on the frequency of deaths from pellagra, a vitamin B deficiency, among 19 skeleton samples.

The third focused on a wider investigation, placing the 66 bodies among the roughly 10,000 people who were documented to have died at the asylum before its closing. This final investigation used tree dating of the wood in a single coffin, as well as radioactive isotope and dental chemistry of the body within, to determine lifestyle—and potentially even the identity of the person.

“Combining these data with a biological profile, we narrow the potential patient list,” write the researchers. “Ideally, these efforts would lead to identification when combined with DNA analysis, but the candidate lists can also be examined to provide a richer understanding of the health challenges facing this institutionalized population.” 

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