JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – A team of archaeologists should begin exhuming human remains this month on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). This is part of the years-long Asylum Hill Project.
Last month, trees were removed on a section of land holding the graves of thousands of people who were residents of the vanished State Hospital for the Insane, which operated for 80 years on what is now UMMC ground.
The cutting of trees over an approximately four-acre section of the project area was a major phase of the ongoing mission to unearth, study and respectfully memorialize those asylum patients whose bodies were never claimed, as UMMC officials map out an ethical way to reclaim the burial site for potential land development.
About to commence as well is the construction of a six-foot high, chain-link privacy fence with slats to obstruct views outside the excavation site in the northeast corner of the campus.
“Right now, the focus is on getting the equipment here, the excavation team here, getting a fence up and excavating the remains,” said Dr. Ralph Didlake, leader of the Asylum Hill Project and director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities.
That equipment includes a track hoe, which has a digging arm. Its operator will carefully scrape away the top layer of soil over the burial ground, just inches at a time, until the soil’s appearance changes, indicating the presence of interments beneath.
“The contractor, who is from Mississippi, specializes in this type of archaeological machine excavation,” said Dr. Jennifer Mack, lead bioarchaeologist for the undertaking.
A team of seven archaeologists, including Mack and scholars drawn from locations such as New York, Florida, Ohio and even Guam, some 7,500 miles away, will do the rest by shovel and hand.
“I’m hopeful we’ll start excavating by the end of October,” Mack said.
The project includes plans for tree replanting. The types of replacement trees will be based on the inventory documented by Lida Gibson, the assessment and research coordinator for Asylum Hill.
As work proceeds, the experts cannot be sure how deep the graves lie. Thanks to geophysical surveys and other means, they have been able to estimate that as many as 7,000 constitute the asylum cemetery. The first coffin discovered, in late 2012, was about one foot deep.
Mack estimates that the ones about to be uncovered will be four or five feet down.
The area archaeologists will concentrate on first stretches along University Drive, from East University Drive along Lakeland Drive, near the St. Dominic Hospital’s property line.
“The project will work its way southward toward Central University Drive,” Didlake said.
Originally named the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, the institution served about 30,000 patients between 1855 and 1935. The thousands of residents who died were buried with wooden markers which deteriorated and disappeared over time.
A list of asylum patients who were buried in the cemetery between 1912 and 1935 is available; but, without markers, no one knows exactly where each one lies.