Forgotten dead in potter’s field lifted from their graves

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A member of an archaeological crew lifted a human skull from a pauper’s grave Thursday morning and gingerly brushed the inside clean. Another carefully wielded a hammer and chisel to tap away hard dirt from a skeleton’s clavicle. Above and behind them rose a glistening new structure for a public hospital on a building spree.

Forgotten dead in potter's field lifted from their graves
Members of a combined archaeology and osteology team excavate graves in a potter’s field on the grounds of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, June 13, 2013. A total of 631 remains have been recovered from the construction site since February 2013. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The site has been an employee parking lot since 1966 [Credit: Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group]

“It’s once in a lifetime to see something like this,” said Dr. Mike Shea, a retired physician and history buff who watched the excavation of a potter’s field at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

The public hospital invited reporters and historians to watch the final days of an archaeological dig that started a year ago when construction workers unearthed a simple redwood coffin buried six feet under a hospital parking lot. The excavation has quietly uncovered 631 remains and personal artifacts, but no clues to the identities of the dead.

“We looked for lists and names in the archives — nothing,” hospital spokeswoman Joy Alexiou said. “Records were not kept as thoroughly as they are today.”

Still, a couple of tables under a tent displayed some personal belongings to tantalize the imagination and spark a measure of compassion. They included a wedding ring, earrings, pocketknife, smoking pipe and even a set of dentures. And oddly enough, a surgical scalpel and syringe.

Forgotten dead in potter's field lifted from their graves
A member of a combined archaeology and osteology team who did not want to be identified, excavate graves in a potter’s field on the grounds of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, June 13, 2013. A total of 631 remains have been recovered from the construction site since February 2013. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The site has been an employee parking lot since 1966 [Credit: Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group]

While the half-acre cemetery existed before the hospital was built in 1875, officials believe most of the graves held the remains of poor patients whose families could not afford to bury them, or patients who went unclaimed by anyone. Most were buried between 1875 and 1935. After that the cemetery disappeared from official maps and was forgotten and paved over.

Once uncovered, cleaned and examined for identifying marks or belongings, the remains were sent to a laboratory at San Francisco State University for analysis, mostly for age, sex and cause of death.

The majority were men from age 23 to their early 60s. A small percentage were women and infants, possibly the victims of fatal childbirth. Several men died from syphilis. Others were missing a leg, evidence of an amputation to combat diabetes.

Alexiou said the chances for identification are low. None of the coffins bore numbers, names or markings of any sort. No piece of jewelry or watch bearing a name has been found.

Forgotten dead in potter's field lifted from their graves
Items recovered from a potter’s field on the grounds of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center are displayed in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, June 13, 2013. A total of 631 remains have been recovered from the construction site since February 2013. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The site has been an employee parking lot since 1966 [Credit: Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group]

Ever since the cemetery was discovered, at least a few local residents have been following the excavation, hoping to confirm it as the final resting place of an ancestor.

Jim Zetterquist, a member of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, a history group, thinks his great uncle, Secundino Robles, may have been buried there as a penniless ward of the county after losing his land and wealth after the Mexican War. Zetterquist was hoping modern DNA testing could settle the question.

“My God, they’re getting DNA from mastodons these days,” he said. “But they say they can’t do it here, so I’m just here to pay my respects.”

Forgotten dead in potter's field lifted from their graves
A member of a combined archaeology and osteology team who did not want to be identified, inspects a skull removed from a grave in a potter’s field on the grounds of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, June 13, 2013. A total of 631 remains have been recovered from the construction site since February 2013. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The site has been an employee parking lot since 1966 [Credit: Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group]

Alexiou said experts have determined the remains are too dry and brittle for reliable test samples.

“There’s no DNA testing,” she said. “There isn’t enough of it.”

The hospital expects the excavation to wrap up in August. A few graves that are away from the construction site will remain in place and undisturbed.

Reminded that the discovery might generate fears or urban legends about angry poltergeists haunting hospital wings, Alexiou said nobody has brought up the notion.

“There may be that fear, I don’t know,” she said. “But we’re not near any patients.”

After all the remains are lab tested, she said, they will be sent to the county medical examiner for cremation or reburial.

Author:Joe Rodriguez | Source: Mercury News [June 13, 2013]

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