When I arrived at the lab this morning, I began work on a historical burial that we retrieved recently from the banks of a bayou (we call it “by you” in south Louisiana; in north Louisiana, they call it “by oh”). These small, meandering freshwater streams are all over Louisiana, especially in the southern parts. They provide a wonderful natural environment for many kinds of waterfowl, other animals such as nutria (looks sort of like beaver) and, of course, alligators. Because we had such a dry winter and were way below normal on our rainfall, the old burial became exposed in the sidewall of the small channel. Such cases are generally considered to be historic in nature, and forensic anthropologists across the country often help law enforcement analyze them and determine their age and origin. The jurisdiction for them falls under the purview of the local sheriff and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if they are associated with waterways. They asked for my help in retrieving the remains and analyzing them.
I grabbed my rubber boots and drove the 40 or so miles that day to meet them. We then went by boat up the bayou and came to the small fishing camp where the owner had found the burial while walking along the banks the day before.
The top of the old coffin was missing, but when I looked inside I saw quite a few bones, all human. Some of them were floating in water that nearly filled the coffin from the wake of our small boat. We decided to take out the entire coffin, which was made of cypress and could remain intact for hundreds of years in such a moist environment. As I reached down to feel around the edges of the bottom of the coffin to see whether the suction would affect our picking it up, I raked my hand across something sharp and felt a pain shoot up my arm. I withdrew my hand, pulled off my glove, and watched the blood flow freely from two of my fingers. I quickly wrapped my hand and finished loading the coffin into the boat. Back at the university, I hurried to the health center, had the cuts examined, and received a tetanus booster shot after checking my records. I had had my last booster eight years ago. The doctor scolded me, saying that even though the shot is good for 10 years these days, anyone in my field should have a booster every five years. A lesson learned.
My analysis of the bones from the coffin indicated that the person was a young teen-ager—the bones had not finished growing, and the wisdom teeth were not fully developed (they are usually developed by age 18). The hipbone indicated it was a male. Many of his facial bones were missing, probably having floated out of the coffin the day or so before it was found. Therefore, we could not determine his race. The bones were all dark brown because bone is porous and will take on the color of the soil around it. The soil along the bayou is rich in organic material like rotten wood and leaves.
Wear on the biting surface of the teeth was fairly heavy and suggested that this was a person who probably lived in the 1800s or early 1900s when grit in the diet produced wear on their teeth. Today, our refined diet does not result in heavy wear. The coffin itself helped to confirm the general age of the burial. Its shape was a “toe pincher,” which is a coffin that broadens at the shoulder region and narrows down as it moves toward the feet. Also, the nails in the coffin had square heads rather than the round-headed, machine-cut nails of modern times. By looking at historic records we hope to be able to find out who lived in that region more than 100 years ago and determine who the young teen-ager was. That is our ultimate goal, whether the case is a modern forensic case or a historical case. The remains will be reburied along the bayou very shortly, much farther away from the edge than they were before. Perhaps we will also be able to add his name to a plaque.