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Harvard's Skull and Bones Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Jerry Shine

[image] Late eighteenth- or nineteenth-century medical students studied these bones. (Jerry Shine) [LARGER IMAGE]

Construction workers gutting an old chapel at Harvard University received a surprise when their backhoe dug into a circle of mortared bricks, revealing a large collection of human bones, some of which had been sawed in half. Work immediately stopped and Carole Mandryk, an associate professor of anthropology at the university, was called to the site. "Before I saw the bones, I thought they might be from some early murder," she says. "But it was obvious right away that they weren't." A vertebrae with a piece of corroded metal sticking out of it (Mandryk suggests it might be a nail that once held together a prepared skeleton), as well as test tubes and broken scientific glassware scattered about, hinted at a less-than-sinister explanation.

Research into the building's history showed that from 1782 until 1810, it had been the primary facility of Harvard Medical School, and from 1810 until 1850 it had been used for anatomy classes. The bones belonged to cadavers used for teaching. In the early nineteenth century, students were in some cases expected to come to class with their own corpses.

The bones represent body parts rather than intact skeletons, which, together with the enormous quantity of glass, may indicate that these are preserved samples for study taken from skeletons, the remainder of which may have been properly buried. "Medical schools in the past were usually associated with a cemetery where they could dispose of remains properly," says Mandryk; she does not yet know whether the Harvard Medical School had such a place at that time. "But, for some reason, all of these bones were just thrown away. And there are six distinct layers of them so it happened over a period of time."

In addition to the human bones, the brick circle, which resembles a well or cistern and must have served as a garbage chute, contained the bones of chicken and deer, pieces of pottery, beakers, microscope slides, mustard and pickle jars, old shoes, shell (often used like lime as a disinfectant), and some as-yet-unidentified red crystals, possibly vermillion, which was injected post-mortem to test various body functions. The excavation has been hindered by high concentrations of arsenic, a common embalming agent used prior to the Civil War. For health reasons, everything must be handled with care. Despite the difficulty, Harvard researchers are excited by the find. "Most things that have been found in Harvard Yard had to do with social life," says Mandryk. "This is the first time we've found anything having to do with academic life."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America