Researchers at MCV to conduct DNA analysis on 19th century human remains found on campus

Human remains were discovered in 1994 during the construction of the Kontos building. Photos courtesy of Jodi Koste

Katrina Lee, News Editor

Varsha Vasudevan, Contributing Writer

Human remains dating back to the 19th century that were discovered on MCV campus returned to the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU for researchers to learn more about the remains through DNA analysis.

The remains were discovered in 1994 during the construction of the Kontos building on East Marshall Street. An estimated 44 people, including nine children, were found at the bottom of a well, according to the East Marshall Street Well Project website.  

Kevin Allison, a senior executive for special projects in the VCU Office of the President, said the main objective of the current research is to understand and share the history of the remains.

“Ultimately we are hoping to memorialize these individuals and ensure our community better understands these individuals and their history,” Allison said.

The remains that were found have been linked to illegal grave robbing of African American burial sites, a common practice in the 19th century, according to the East Marshall Street Well Project Website. During this time, demand for medical cadavers was not satisfied as there was “no legal method at that time for obtaining cadavers.” Faculty from the Medical College of Virginia would steal and use these bodies as cadavers to teach medical practices, according to the project’s website

“Illicit grave robbing addressed this challenge and a ‘sink,’ well or ‘limb pit’ was used for the  disposal of these remains,” the website stated. 

Tal Simmons, a professor of forensic science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU will be co-leading the research. Analyzing the DNA can help determine the exact number of people that were found in the well, Simmons said.

“The first goal is to assemble individuals out of what is now a commingled group of bones. We have boxes of bones right now that don’t represent individuals,” Simmons said. “Then, that information will help the memorialization and interment committee to decide how to rebury these individuals based on.” 

Laws such as The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968 were created to “ regulate body donations to science, medicine, and education,” according to The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

Despite the Act, “grave-robbing” persisted as a convenient method to obtain a steady supply of bodies for teaching medical and at burial grounds around the country, “most often victimized were for the poor and marginalized”  as those graves had lesser protection, according to JSTOR Daily.  

Current VCU president, Michael Rao established the East Marshall Street Wall Planning Committee in 2013, which “encouraged learning about the human remains discovered near East Marshall Street,” according to the East Marshall Street Well Project website.

The researchers are hoping to find descendants of the remains from their sampling as well, according to Simmons. 

“We hope to be reaching out to the community at large in terms of finding people who think they may have ancestors from this area and make connections between living individuals in the community and the bodies from the well,” Simmons said. 

Joseph Jones is an anthropology professor at the College of William & Mary and co-leader of the research. The researchers will be analyzing the remains’ dental calculus to identify the health of the remains, according to Jones. Dental calculus is mineralized dental plaque which can vary in individuals based on oral care, health, age and more according to Science Direct.

“The remains’ health speaks to their physical quality of life, which we can compare to historical context. The health of these individuals is another line of evidence to create as rich of a narrative about these people’s lives as we can,”  Jones said. “The likelihood that we will know anyone’s name is fairly slim, but we can use these profiles through DNA and chemical analysis to reconstruct these individual’s life stories.”

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