The state medical examiner determined last week that the initial assessment of a human skull found in Haines was correct. He released the skull and it’s on its way back. Meanwhile, the nod from the state also means that the two sites where the skull came from and was ultimately unearthed, were cleared for closer examination. More bones and fragments were found this week at both the Bald Eagle Foundation and the gravel pit at 6.5 mile.
More pieces of the skull, two leg bones and a shard of pelvis were uncovered on Sunday and Monday, filling in a few gaps on the story of this mystery person. Anastasia Wiley is the archeologist heading up the study. The two original skull pieces were found earlier this month in a pile of dirt that was delivered to the foundation from the site up the highway.
“It’s like a treasure hunt almost because you’re trying to find as much of this individual as you can because she, she or he, will ultimately be reburied, repatriated to the tribal group and reburied,” she says. “You have a demeanor of respect and dignity because this is an individual … because people getting excited because they’re finding something and there’s nothing wrong with that. But always keep in mind that you’re dealing with an individual and that in itself is stressful to some extent.”
Wiley’s initial assessment that the bones are that of a Native American woman, or small man, who was middle-aged or older was accurate according to the medical examiner, she says. But much more work needs to happen to make a more specific analysis.
“There are a lot of measurements that can help us pinpoint is statistically so that we can turn around and say changes are very good that it’s one or the other. I was of course very pleased that the medical examiner agreed with me, that made me feel good and gave confidence to the police department and so forth,” she says.
She says the new remains found look to belong to the same person.
Once the medical examiner released the skull, Wiley got busy rallying the troops, or volunteers, including local cultural resource specialists and some residents with training from Wiley. Representatives from the Chilkoot Indian Association, Chilkat Indian Village and the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation from the Yukon also showed up to help.
“So, with all these people we did a systematic screening program and we used a series of nested screens where you go from very small, like eighth-inch screen mesh all the way up to one inch and three inch. We went all the way up the gamut and you always start with the smallest.”
Most of the screening was done by hand, with helpers carefully sifting through yards and yards of dirt looking for more remnants. At the site up the highway, they had a mechanical screen that helped move the process along. All told, they went through about 12 yards of dirt at the eagle foundation, which is where they found more skull fragments – the side and pieces that belong between the eye sockets. On Monday, the group went through about 50 yards of dirt at the gravel pit, which is where the back of the skull and leg bones were found.
“It was a femur and tibia, so the upper and lower right leg of the person, and a small piece of the pelvis. We excavated all around all around where that came from and there was nothing else,” Wiley says. “The situation is that these bones were coming out of an area where there’s a lot of soil movement and a lot of river and glacial deposits there as well.”
Wiley says she can recognize bone right away. Even when it’s caked in dirt and discolored from minerals in the soil. And it was obvious that these bones had been in the ground for a long, long time. Wiley estimates they are anywhere from 1,200 to 10,000 years old.
“The tibia, the long leg bone, the lower leg bone had a root growing right through it. And it was cottonwood root.”
Wiley says they dug through all the dirt they could and while there very well could be more pieces up or down stream, the area at 6.5-mile has been deemed clean of remains. Now Wiley is waiting for the skull to come back, so she can look at all the pieces together with more scrutiny. She and her helpers will take dozens of measurements which will tell them much more about the person.
“The combination of the two work really well for trying to reconstruct what the individual basically looked like. And again with the skull, and somewhat with the leg bone, you can tell the age of the individual.”
Wiley hopes that there is enough organic matter left in the bones so that a DNA test would be possible to find out even more about who this person was and when they lived. After that, the remains will be returned to a local tribal organization for a traditional burial.