Unearthing Rare Coffin

1 decade 11 months 3 weeks ago Thursday, May 03 2007 May 3, 2007 Thursday, May 03, 2007 6:57:55 AM CDT May 03, 2007 in News

MU's Anthropology Department took a look inside.

It's not a funeral or Halloween, but one coffin is the center of attention. Grave diggers in Lexington, Missouri unearthed a 150 year-old mystery, and now they've turned to MU to solve it.

When grave diggers start digging, they normally know what to expect dirt. But at Machpelah Cemetery, they found one empty grave wasn't empty.

"As we proceeded to dig the grave, we hit the cast iron coffin," said Don Coen with Machpelah Cemetery.

And it's not your everyday coffin either.

"In those days it would have been a very expensive item... It cost anywhere from 75 to 100 dollars," said Coen.

In the 1850's, an ordinary casket cost $2 to $3. The Stewart family owns the land, but neither they nor the cemetery have records of who is in the grave. They sent the cast iron coffin to MU where the anthropology department will lend its expertise.

"Just open it up and look and see what's in there," said Daniel Wescott with MU anthropology department.

Wescott found the cast iron coffin is incredibly rare, only produced between 1849 and 1853.

"Well this is the only one I know that's been at MU, and there's only been maybe a dozen of these actually opened up and studied," said Wescott.

And this is the farthest west in the USA cast iron coffin has been discovered. Students made preliminary analysis and cleaned the coffin to prepare for the grand opening.

It's not in the best condition, but what do you expect after 150 years underground.

Lifting the cover and getting inside the coffin was the easy part.

Now the hard part begins. Students and faculty have to dig through the remains, and figure out who this is.

Dr. Wescott leads a team of five students who analize the coffin, the skeleton, and other remains. The actual identification process requires a number of tests including DNA analysis at a cost of $1,200, and a stable isotope analysis costing $400.

The team recovered nearly the entire skeleton and put it back together. Wescott also discovered remnants of clothing, shoes, and a full head of brown hair.

"We can actually do a toxicology on the hair to look at cocaine and nicotine and stuff like that," said Wescott.

Each student does their part. It's not about the grade on this final exam. After three weeks of research, the team concluded the coffin's inhabitant is a young woman between the ages of 25 and 30 who died of natural causes.

The research will continue for months, and Wescott anticipates to make an ID by the end of the summer.

When the team completes its research, the Stewart family will return the remains to the grave site. Wescott hopes the coffin itself will be put on display.

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