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BU researchers quick to help solve local mystery

When a local excavation company unearthed human remains while preparing a Hillcrest backyard for a new septic system last week, two Binghamton University researchers quickly teamed up with local law enforcement officials to help solve the mystery.

Dawnie Steadman, a forensic anthropologist at the University, received a call from the Broome County Sheriff’s Department at about noon on November 30. She was asked to come out to the dig to help determine if the uncovered remains were human. She also had to rule on whether the site warranted treatment as a crime scene.

“As a forensic anthopologist, that’s always my first concern,” she said.

Only about 10 percent of the remains of a human skeleton—mostly long bones—were immediately apparent at the excavation. But Steadman suspected the remains might be those of a Native American. Changing hats from her role as forensic anthropologist to bioarchaelogist, Steadman immediately called in Nina Versaggi, director of the Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton.

Based on contextual evidence provided by artifacts found at the site, Versaggi said the remains are likely those of a Native American, probably a member of the Iroquois nation who lived between 1000 and 1200.

“The decoration on the pottery is indicative of that time frame,” she said.

Appropriate state officials were immediately contacted and acted as a liaison between Iroquois Nation and Steadman and Versaggi. The Iroquois asked that after as many bones as possible were recovered from the site, the remains be brought back to the University where more exacting examination could help to further clarify their identification. When that work is finished, the remains are expected to be turned over for proper burial.

About 75 percent of the skeleton of a “fairly muscular” adult male were recovered before the site was released back to the commercial excavators on December 5, Steadman said. She was able to determine the muscularity of the individual based on muscle attachments on the bones.

“The larger the muscles, the larger the attachments,” she noted.

Steadman said “an amazing amount of material” was recovered at the site, but added that several critical elements of the skeleton were missing, including the skull.

Contacted at the site just hours before the excavation company was expected to resume work on the septic tank installation, Versaggi said she wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the last such incident in the Town of Fenton neighborhood.

“Neighbors stopped by this morning and said that when the house next door was built in the 1940s, the foundation excavation also produced burials,” she said. “It certainly appears there is more to this site.”

Whether the site is a Native American cemetery or perhaps even a village might never be known for sure. Out of respect, no more excavations of the site are planned—other than those that might again be necessitated by home maintenance projects.

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