Monday, September 13, 2010
Researchers at Mercyhurst College say they are starting to get a few clues about the lives and deaths of 23 humans found buried on SCI-Laurel Highlands property. The Department of Corrections knew there was an old cemetery near where they were digging to lay the foundation of a new building, but they thought they had avoided the area where the bodies were buried. Old maps were apparently a bit off and the excavation turned up 24 coffins. Mercyhurst College Applied Forensic Science Department Director Dennis Dirkmaat says they were called in to look at the first coffin in April and were called back a few times in the following weeks as more remains were found. Dirkmaat says some of the bones were in pretty good shape but others had been subjected to tough conditions. He says the soil is a bit acidic and some of the bones were subject to cycles of wet and dry as the ground water moved up and down. Dirkmaat and his students are working with 23 sets of remains. The 24th coffin was smaller and is believed to have held the remains of a child whose bones were not strong enough to withstand the rough conditions. In the coming weeks, Dirkmaat will be looking more closely at the bones to see if they can judge age, sex, stature and if there is any sign of illness or trauma. Dirkmaat says there is an indication of gunshot and other trauma with some of the remains. Clothing will be sent off to other experts who will try to use them to determine the time of death. The same records that misguided the digging show the area was used for a poor house and a mental institution in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century. The remains will eventually be returned to the Department of Corrections.