Stephen Michael Davis of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research measures a coffin.

Published in Centerview at UMMC • By Gary Pettus

Mable Daniels’ great-grandmother was a patient in the State Insane Asylum about a century ago when she was laid to rest on the asylum grounds – before her family knew she had died.

“Things were done different back then,” said Daniels, of Forest.

Apparently so; Daniels wonders if her ancestor’s remains could lie in one of the five dozen wooden coffins uncovered over the past few months beneath the former site of the vanished asylum – the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

As has happened before at UMMC, a construction crew scraped away a decades-old layer of dirt and desertion near a stand of pine trees to reveal 66 unmarked graves, making it virtually impossible to name the people buried there.

But if Epsie (Seals) Devine is among them, Daniels can be sure the remains of her great-grandmother are being treated with respect.

In spite of an extensive campus road construction project delayed in part by the discovery, UMMC is working with several institutions to document, and then rebury, the people lost to their loved ones.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Jim Woodrick, director of the Historic Preservation Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “Things expand, but memory doesn’t expand with them.”

Archaeologists help us recover it, he said.

“This doesn’t stop progress, but we are also able to accommodate those who died. We learn things about our past. We honor the dead.”

Already, investigators have made an educated guess about the general identity of the deceased, said Nicholas Herrmann, assistant professor of anthropology at Mississippi State University, whose department is removing the remains for testing at MSU.

“I believe the coffins are tied to the asylum,” he said.

That was probably the suspicion from the moment in November when construction workers struck wood buried in the messy gunk of Yazoo clay.

“That’s when the whole thing started,” said Nicole Reese, senior project manager in the Office of Planning and Design. It started because of a project designed to add a new north-south road and campus intersection with Lakeland Drive to improve traffic flow, providing a beltway that bypasses the campus’ heart and eases future development. The roadway cuts through a wooded area and intersects an existing road running parallel to Lakeland.

The remains were found just off the north side of that existing road.

From November and through early March, as crews dug out subsoil to see if it was fit to support a new road, construction equipment exposed a total of 66 coffins. In size, they are fairly uniform – about six feet long but alarmingly narrow, as if each held a pair of stilts instead of a human skeleton.

Many were at least four or five feet deep in the ground.

“A lot of clay and junk was in the soil,” said Ron Horne, director of construction projects, “and has to be replaced.

“We might have built the roadbed on top of the graves if the subsoil had been solid.”

Read more of Gary’s fascinating piece at UMC.edu.

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