MSU archeologists study remains found at UMMC

MSU associate professor of anthropology Molly Zuckerman, right, shows a human mandible recovered from an archaeological site on the UMMC campus in Jackson to sophomore anthropology major Adara Rutherford. More than 7,000 bodies of deceased patients of the Mississippi State Asylum may be buried at UMMC. (Photo by Charlie Benton, SDN)
A human mandible found at an archeological site on the UMMC campus in Jackson, held by MSU sophomore anthropology major Adara Rutherford. Remains of the original 66 bodies found by a construction crew on the UMMC campus are located in a lab at MSU, with both students and faculty researching the remains. (Photo by Charlie Benton, SDN)
Staff Writer

A meticulous, reverent task is underway in a laboratory located in Etheridge Hall on the Mississippi State University campus.

MSU associate professor of anthropology Molly Zuckerman and graduate students in the MSU Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures are studying bone fragments and pieces from a
large gravesite discovered in 2012. The site was discovered during road construction on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus in Jackson. Some estimates state as many as 7,000 bodies are buried in the site, all deceased patients of the Mississippi State Asylum from the 1855 to 1935. Plans are currently underway to exhume more of the bodies.

Zuckerman said studying the bones could be like reading a book of a person’s life, with injuries, health, sex, diet and lifestyle all apparent. Dating of the remains was done in part by examining the wood rings in samples taken from the pine coffins the bodies were found in.

“Here at Mississippi State, we curate and research the remains that have been recovered and excavated from the Mississippi State Asylum (MSA),” Zuckerman said. “We have a number of ongoing research projects with students that involve the remains. Currently, three MA students in anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures are using the remains for their master’s thesis research, all non-destructive, so making observations based on the appearance of the outside of the remains.”

She said a doctoral student from the University of South Carolina was also going to come to Starkville this week to research the remains for her dissertation.

“She’s interested, just like all the other students are, in understanding the impact that life in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the Jim Crow era had on people’s health and biology, as well as the effect being institutionalized had on people’s health,” Zuckerman said.

She emphasized the importance of the research, saying human remains were the only direct record of diseases, diet, lifestyle and other health issues.

“We can also reconstruct human health and biology in the past using historical records, but they tend to be incomplete,” Zuckerman said. “They have their own distinctive set of biases, and they also don’t apply to large numbers of people in past societies.”

She said written records often left out marginalized groups such as women, children, people of color, the poor, the working-class and others.

“Human bodies present us kind of a direct material archive of information about the past,” Zuckerman said. “Then when we have questions about health in the past in the American South, historical records are incomplete, and they don’t cover large numbers of the population.”

A consortium of seven institutions was formed to oversee the research on the site. These include, MSU, UMMC, Jackson State University, The University of Mississippi, The University of Southern Mississippi, Millsaps College and Texas State University. Various ideas have been discussed as to what to do with the 20-acre field on the UMMC campus where up to 7,000 more bodies may be buried. The remains of the original 66 found by the construction crew are located at MSU.

She said she and other researchers had observed not all of the remains apparently came from the poor and working class, with some showing better than average health in certain areas.

“A lot of these skeletons don’t have evidence of material hardship during childhood,” Zuckerman said. “This suggests that they came from higher or middle socioeconomic status. A lot of people also have evidence of dentistry, which was particularly hard to access in the past.”

Zuckerman also emphasized the care taken in performing research with human remains. “When they’re discovered, they need to be excavated and preserved in an extremely respectful manner, Zuckerman said. “We have to remember, not only do they represent the remains of once-living people, but they are deserving of respect in and of themselves because they are material archives of the human past.”