Archaeological Background

While there are a number of recorded instances of disturbances associated with road construction and/or campus improvement projects, including in 1899, 1938, 1952, 1961, 1964, 1983, 1994, and 2008 (Courier Express (CE), 18 February 1938:7; Courier Express (CE), 5 April 1952:21; Buffalo Evening News (BEN) 1964; Courier Express (CE) 1964; Buffalo News (BN) 1983; Boetsch 1994), the first modern (post-1964) incidence of the discovery of in situ human remains occurred in 2009 during a series of improvements to the university’s child day care facilities. At that time, 16 locations were identified that contained partial skeletons in coffins. In 2011, installation of a sewer line in this area prompted active archaeological construction monitoring for human remains, resulting in the documentation of coffin wood at eight locations, and a single human bone fragment. The relative absence of human remains in this area is likely due to sanitation work conducted in 1980. These events, however, set an important precedent for actively searching for remains in conjunction with construction projects.

In 2012, the first controlled, large-scale excavation of human remains from the site occurred prior to major infrastructure improvements to the Michael Road entrance to the University at Buffalo’s South Campus (Fig. 13.2). Because human remains were known to exist in this location, the entire proposed work area was excavated to a shallow depth using heavy machinery to remove overburden soils and existing pavement. Following this, a team of archaeologists and physical anthropologists fully exposed individual coffins resulting in the identification of 437 locations with human remains and/or coffin remains. Of these, 364 locations yielded at least one human skeletal element; the remaining locations consisted mainly of partial coffins that had been previously disturbed. Additionally, human remains in the form of small bone fragments were recovered from several locations without coffin remains.

The excavated portion represents approximately 20 % of the total estimated size of the cemetery based on 1929 aerial photos (Fig. 13.2). Material evidence (e.g., coffin orientation and spacing, associated artifacts, condition and construction materials) indicates that there appears to be a line of demarcation between older and newer portions of ECP cemetery. On the east side of this line graves have an east- west orientation and may have been oriented perpendicular to Bailey Avenue or parallel with the southern boundary of the cemetery parcel. This section is considered to be older based on the greater degree of deterioration observed in the human remains and coffins, the presence of more soil in the coffins, and the use of older machine-cut nails and screws in coffin construction.

In contrast, the graves to the west of this demarcation line have a more northeast- southwest orientation and are parallel to, and potentially oriented with, the northern field edge as it existed in 1927. The graves in this area are more tightly grouped with more regular spacing relative to graves in the older part of the cemetery. This section is considered to be more recent based on the preservation of human skeletal material, cloth, leather and coffins, the predominant use of wire drawn nails used in coffin construction, and the recovery of newspapers with 1901 and 1903 dates.

Map of Erie County Poorhouse cemetery with dissected

Fig. 13.2 Map of Erie County Poorhouse cemetery with dissected (indicated in red) and log burials (indicated in blue) highlighted. Base map was created by James Hartner, Archaeological Survey, University at Buffalo

As will be discussed in more depth below, evidence of postmortem examination was observed in 20 burials. As can be seen in Fig. 13.2, eight (40 %) of these individuals are in the western section and 12 (60 %) are in the eastern section. Though these numbers are too small to make any unequivocal statements, the spatial (and possibly temporal) spread of these examples would seem to suggest that autopsies/ dissections were occurring throughout the history of the cemetery. In addition to this direct evidence of postmortem examination, six coffins that contained logs were recovered; all are located in the older eastern section of the cemetery (Fig. 13.2). While it not possible to unequivocally conclude that these log burials represents instances in which bodies were kept for dissection or anatomical study, the inclusions of logs would seem to suggest an intentional effort was made to hide whatever was occurring.

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