Human remains found on campus undergo further analysis

Medical College of Virginia researchers have made progress on the DNA and chemical analysis for the East Marshall Street Well Project. Photo courtesy of Tal Simmons

Rachel Marcus, Contributing Writer

Medical College of Virginia researchers have made progress on the DNA and chemical analysis for the East Marshall Street Well Project, where they are studying human remains found on MCV campus during the construction of the Herman A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building in 1994.

The VCU Family Representative Council implemented a community process years later to encourage learning about the human remains called the East Marshall Street Well Project, following the recovery of these remains.

VCU forensic science professor and project researcher Tal Simmons stated analysis of the remains is moving in the right direction.

“We are all honored to be carrying out the wishes of the community in order to understand the life histories and background of the ancestral remains,” Simmons stated.

Graduate research assistant Amber Mundy is working with Simmons and has been focused on deciding the extraction method for the 12 skull samples that have been assessed and logged into the team’s bone inventory database. She said the team is almost to the point of completing this step.

Mundy has been assigned to work on the skulls of the remains. She has been able to conclude that 11 out of 12 crania were identified as Black and one of European descent. She said a majority of those analyzed have been identified as coming from the 20th century, which went against her prediction of the remains dating back to the 19th century.

The bones are believed to be linked to illicit grave robbing from African American burial grounds and were used to teach medical practices as cadavers for MCV, according to the East Marshall Planning Committee website. Educators carried out these practices at the current Medical College of Virginia and the Health Sciences Division of VCU. The committee website says at the time, medical institutions had no way of obtaining cadavers legally, so they turned to graverobbing.

“It is possible to find descendants, though the scope of that project would be incredibly large as many DNA databases would need to be utilized. It is a goal of the project but the go abouts of the project is still in its early stages,” Mundy said.

Mundy said once the research team is finished with the DNA analysis, they memorialize and rebury the remains based on their biogeographical ancestry results.

“Different African nations and peoples have different burial practices so I am sure the committee will honor the traditions from each of the societies the individuals descended from,” Mundy said.

Forensic science professor Tal Simmons stated she has completed photographic documentation of all the bones, which will be sampled for DNA and the teeth for isotope analysis.

Isotope analysis is a scientific process which tells whether two or more samples are of a common origin and it can identify the country of origin. Archaeologists can find out many things from this analysis, including what the individual’s diet was like or the environment they lived in, according to Future Learn.

“We are working on a database inventory of bones, corresponding samples, etc. to ensure that everything can be reassociated and reburied together when the time comes,” Simmons stated.

The information derived from the DNA samples and bones will be stored in a team database. The research team’s goal is to guarantee the bones will be easily reconvened and have a proper burial, once this process is completed, according to Simmons.

Simmons said the next step of the research process is to “settle on the best technique” to yield the highest quality DNA, and the team will continue to take samples from the remainder of the bones and extract DNA profiles.

“The skulls will also be DNA sequenced to obtain data on phenotype (hair/eye color) and ancestry. After that, we will compare profiles obtained from all the bones and re-associate individual bones to reunite individuals,” Simmons stated.

The VCU Family Representative Council was created with the purpose of giving a voice to the descendants of the recovered individuals, according to the East Marshall Street Well Project website. The council will ultimately decide the memorialization process and dignified reburial best suited for each individual.

Each skeleton will go under an anthropological analysis to try and find the individual’s life history. Only after this step will the memorialization and burial efforts begin, according to Simmons.

Michelle Woo, a first-year forensic science master’s student at VCU who is studying the effort, said she is “honored” to be a part of the research project.

She will work with arm element groups, and the process of extracting DNA from them. Her role also includes using DNA to verify the osteometric groupings of the arm bones.

“Since I am not from Virginia, this project really provides me an insight into local history, as well as efforts being done to address it. In addition, I have also learned a lot about the field application of archaeology,” Woo said.

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