Within PVC-free bags, inside acid-free boxes, stacked in straight, even rows on a shelf, rest the skeletal remains of 67 individuals whose lives were anything but neat and orderly.
Retrieved from unmarked graves at what is now home to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, these individuals were patients of Mississippi’s state asylum. During its existence from 1855 to 1935, it housed approximately 35,000 Mississippians. An estimated 10,000 people died there, and new studies by archaeologists at Mississippi State University show that as many as 7,000 were buried on the premises.
“UMMC had known there were bodies there and had hit burials with other construction projects, but it wasn’t until we went down and started doing background research that we realized it was actually a densely packed historic cemetery,” explained Derek Anderson, an archaeologist with Mississippi State’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology.
Derek Anderson examines the contents of a box in the Etheredge Hall curation facility. He is surrounded by boxes that hold the 67 sets of remains recovered so far from the asylum cemetery. Each of the larger, white boxes hold a complete, or almost complete set of remains, while the smaller grey boxes are partial skeletons.
He confessed, “It’s bigger than anything I expected.”
Anderson said Mississippi State received the call to investigate a wooden coffin unearthed during the beginning phases of a large-scale, road-construction project at UMMC. Whereas similar discoveries in the past had uncovered a handful of burials, the team of Bulldog archaeologists investigating this new find used remote sensing, ground penetrating radar and historical records to identify a nearly 10-acre cemetery that had been lost to time.
Now, the research team is working not only to exhume these bodies but also uncover the history of the asylum to bring closure to the families of the dead and help scientists better understand the past.
“The individuals that are buried on the grounds of the asylum represent a snapshot of people from all over the state at that time,” explained Molly Zuckerman, an associate professor of anthropology at Mississippi State. “Human skeletal material is in many ways priceless. It is the only direct evidence of human health and biology that we have for the past.”
During weekly trips to Jackson, Anderson oversaw the excavation of the 67 burials found in the right-of-way of University Drive, which runs through the east side of UMMC’s campus.
He explained that while he had hoped to remove the coffins intact so they could be thoroughly examined in a laboratory setting, the wood was too deteriorated. Instead, they performed the work on-site.
“The soil down there is this nasty, sticky clay,” Anderson recalled. “When it’s dry, it’s nearly impossible to dig in and when it’s wet, it’s really slick, so it was an unpleasant dig. We used a backhoe to remove very thin layers until we saw indications of wood, which stood out as dark brown against the pale clay. Then we started digging with hand tools.”
Records show that the coffins used by the asylum were built on the grounds. They are simple pine boxes in which the deceased were laid flat with their arms at their sides or crossed over their chests. Deterioration of the wood over time meant that many of the coffins had collapsed and filled with settling soil. It also meant that not every set of remains is complete.
Molly Zuckerman, associate professor, examines a specimen in her Etheredge Hall laboratory.
Rediscovering the Lost
Anderson said the team carefully documented the process every step of the way, ensuring that every bone and bone fragment was recorded and collected, so they could be curated by Zuckerman in her Etheredge Hall lab on Mississippi State’s Starkville campus, where they are beginning to shed light on what brought these people to the asylum and what conditions they experienced while there.
“This human skeletal material uniquely preserves a history of biological experiences: health, diseases, nutrition and violence, as well as when people died and what they died of,” Zuckerman explained. “Doing research on these remains can generate otherwise unrecoverable information on the health, biology and lived experiences of past Mississippians. It can also provide answers to a lot of family mysteries.”
Zuckerman has been the primary liaison between the researchers and the descendant community—those who had relatives at the asylum. Since the cemetery’s discovery received widespread media attention last spring, she has been contacted by numerous families hoping to learn what happened to their relatives.
“The MSA closed in 1935, so this is not old history,” Zuckerman said. “We’re talking about someone’s great-grandparent or, in some cases, even just grandparent. These are people who are still talked about within families, and it’s a family tragedy that they have this big gap in their family history because they don’t know what happened to this person.”
In talking to the descendants of asylum patients and poring over the facility’s surviving records, Zuckerman has come to understand the life cycle of the asylum. Built during the heyday of government-run convalescence, the asylum was meant to house only a couple of hundred individuals, providing a peaceful and engaging environment where they could recover their health. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, in the face of widespread poverty, industrialization and urbanization, more and more families were unable to care for relatives with chronic mental and physical ailments, which led to increased institutionalization.
“It’s a rare instance where the desired outcome was to send someone to the MSA but many families had no choice,” Zuckerman said. “By the 1930s, it housed more than 2,000 people and had essentially turned into warehousing. It’s impossible to maintain humane conditions in a situation like that, so you end up with very stressed, ill people living with insufficient resources. People suffer as a result, and it’s not just those individuals but also their relatives who live with the knowledge that their loved one likely experienced an unpleasant death.”
Zuckerman said it was the widespread poverty of the state, as well as its rural nature, that contributed to so many patients being buried in unmarked graves on the asylum grounds.
“Many families would have liked to have claimed their dead, but Mississippi is a large state and the mail system wasn’t the best at the time,” Zuckerman explained. “Often, by the time a family received a death notice and was able to get the money to go claim the body, it had already been buried. There is no evidence that the asylum had embalming facilities, so they would have needed to be buried quickly.”
Though fires at the asylum destroyed some of its records, Zuckerman has been able to use the historical data and details from the descendant community to find out what happened to many individuals once they were admitted, including a 19-year-old who died only five days after arriving from his family home in the delta.
Because the excavated bodies had no identifying information and only admission and discharge records exist for the patients, it is unlikely the 67 recovered sets of remains will ever be positively tied to an individual. However, the information contained on and within the bones provides a glimpse into late 19th and early 20th-century life in Mississippi.
Now available for study to Mississippi State faculty and students, as well as visiting scholars, the remains have already been the basis for a variety of research projects. These include evaluation of the oral microbiome, or oral microbial community, as well as the oral health of the deceased, which provides insight into people’s overall health and diet. It also provides insight into dental restorations from that time. The skeletal material has also been incorporated into studies about body mass indexes and pellagra and other historic nutritional deficiencies frequently found in marginalized and impoverished human populations.
Though Zuckerman has plans to incorporate the remains into her own study of the evolution and ecology of infectious disease, she is also interested in what the asylum cemetery can tell us about how social identity influences a person’s health.
“By learning about and exposing injustices like mass institutionalization in the past, it’s possible to stop it from happening again in the future,” Zuckerman explained. “We don’t have that many people in mental asylums anymore, but lessons like those from the study of the impacts of living conditions at the asylum and in contemporary Mississippi, can inform modern public health care systems and provisions of care to marginalized and destitute populations like the homeless, incarcerated, chronically ill and poor.”
Zuckerman and other Mississippi State faculty, along with administrators and faculty at UMMC and members of the Asylum Heights Research Consortium are also exploring ways to excavate the rest of the cemetery.
“The desire is to excavate the remains in a professional and ethical manner,” Zuckerman said. “We’d also like for them to be curated, so they can be used by researchers in a respectful manner because being in an unmarked grave, in a big grassy area, is not necessarily how people want to have their ancestors interred.”
Michael McCoy, a staff archaeologist for the Cobb Institute, sifts soil at the Homochitto National Forest.
Mississippi's Buried Past
While the scope of the asylum cemetery and its proximity to a major medical university caused its discovery to spread across social media and international news sites, it’s actually not that uncommon to unearth historic cemeteries and archaeological sites during construction.
“Almost weekly, I’ll get a call from someone who found something and would like to know what it is,” said Jeffrey Alvey. “We try to help identify what they have, which would possibly mean recording an archaeological site that no one knew about previously.”
As director of Mississippi State’s Office of Public Archaeology, Alvey oversees a team tasked with preserving the rich prehistoric and historic resources of Mississippi—a state with a long history of human occupation and exploration.
“Our job is to survey developments and determine if any significant cultural resources are there,” Alvey explained. “It provides the students on our crews the opportunity for real-world experience and allows us to record any findings so they can be studied in the future.”
Part of the university’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology, the unit was created in 2004. Its climate and humidity controlled storage facility houses more than 5,000 boxes of materials collected throughout Mississippi. This collection is meticulously recorded and available for scholars to study in person or online through the use of photos, scans and 3-D models.
“There are very few research questions about Mississippi archaeology that couldn’t be answered by studying some part of this collection, which is preferable to going out and destroying more sites by excavating them,” Alvey explained. “That’s the paradox of archaeology—we have to destroy the very thing we want to learn about. That’s why it’s important for us to make these materials available for study.”
The office’s work primarily comes through federal contracts, which require an archaeological evaluation of any site being developed with federal money—like highways or firebreaks surrounding national forests. However, Alvey said services are available to any Mississippian who is conscientious about preserving the past.
“We often get calls from landowners asking for advice about possible archaeological finds on their property,” Alvey said. “We’re happy to do that work pro bono because as stewards of these resources, it’s our responsibility to help the public make good decisions about protecting these materials.”
What constitutes an archaeological site can vary, but Mississippi’s definition is any site where at least three artifacts—items created or modified by humans—are found. So, whereas a single stone arrowhead or spear point is probably an isolated find, several in one area could be an indication of human settlement or use. But it’s not just prehistoric or Native American artifacts that are of interest. Alvey said “historic” can mean anything beyond a rolling window of 50 years.
“The historic period is anything from more than 50 years ago, so something that wasn’t historic last year could be historic now,” Alvey explained. “Archaeology’s big contribution is to teach us things about the past where no historical records exist, from prehistoric inhabitants to the poor of the Depression Era, whose lives were often not documented by historians.”
Jeffrey Alvey works in the curation facility that houses the Cobb Institute of Archaeology’s artifact collection. The two-story warehouse is surrounded by a three-hour fire wall and is both humidity and climate controlled.
Alvey said in most instances, people are free to collect artifacts they find, as long as it’s not on federal land and no trespass was committed. One important caveat, however, is that no one—not even a landowner—can knowingly disturb a human burial. But whether it’s a human bone or a smattering of stone weaponry, he recommends people contact the Office of Public Archaeology about any artifact discovery.
“Any artifact is worth investigating because one on the surface might literally be the tip of an archaeological iceberg,” Alvey said. “Every day, archaeological resources are being destroyed somewhere, often unknowingly but sometimes knowingly, and that’s a tough decision for us to make. Is a site going to be destroyed or are we going to recommend that it be preserved?
“It’s always a compromise between development and preservation, but it’s our job as cultural resource managers to find that compromise and to find the best possible solution when we encounter those situations.”