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Mercyhurst forensics students apply skills to historic find

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dr. Klales and forensics students work to recover human remains.

Forensic anthropology students at Mercyhurst University, led by Alexandra R. Klales, Ph.D., are applying their skills to an historic find along Route 61 in Schuylkill Haven, about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Mercyhurst’s applied forensic sciences department, known for its implementation of strict archaeological recovery protocols, was called to the scene Friday, Aug. 14, when a construction crew inadvertently dug up what is believed to be a century-old mass grave. Klales said the Mercyhurst team – approximately seven graduate students and one undergraduate – recovered fragmented and discolored pieces of bone from four different individuals and brought the remains back to the Mercyhurst lab for further examination.

The gravesite in Schuylkill County is suspected of dating back to 1918 when nearly 1,600 county residents died from Spanish influenza. Because people were dying so fast, it wasn’t uncommon for the deceased to be buried in mass graves with no markers.

According to news reports, there were said to be several potters’ graves, one of which was identified as being in Schuylkill Haven.

“We took only the remains that were exposed on the embankment where the road crew was working, but we saw evidence of much more,” Klales said. “It is our impression that the site will require a full archaeological excavation.”

Back at the lab, she said her team is doing an inventory of the remains and examining them in an attempt to construct a biological profile of the victims, estimating age, sex, stature, and ancestry.

“There is no doubt from the condition of the bones that this is an historic site,” Klales said.

She said it could take weeks before their results are in. County officials, meanwhile, said they plan to hold a proper burial for the remains when the research is complete. No immediate information was available on the future excavation of the site.