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Archaeologists are excavating human remains unearthed by INDOT in Richmond, Ind.

 grave marker reading: This marks the burial place of the pioneer Hicksite Friends Congregation
Sue King
A marker designating the area as a burial ground sits near the construction site.

Archaeologists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) are searching for any additional human remains near where some were discovered in December during construction work on the U.S. 27 bridge replacement project in Richmond, Ind.

Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) Public Relations Director Kyleigh Cramer says the archaeological excavation of affected graves is complete but a team working with IDNR's Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA) is sifting through previously excavated soils to ensure nothing has been overlooked.

"All remains will be recovered, reunited, and properly reinterred," says Cramer. "The recovered human remains are currently being respectfully documented by qualified professional archaeologists prior to reinterment."

They'll be reinterred in a local cemetery to be selected in consultation with the DHPA, she adds.

What happened?

A crew working on relocating utilities alongside the U.S. 27 bridge replacement project discovered the remains while digging Dec. 21, 2022. INDOT says work was halted and the county coroner was called in, along with a team of archaeologists.

Since then, at least six graves are believed to have been uncovered, though that number may change by the time the full analysis is completed.

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Cramer explains the gravesites were discovered along the edge of the road by a city park, and not directly in the area where the bridge is being reconstructed. That work is part of the Renew Richmond program. The workers were digging in order to relocate some utilities.

INDOT has since pivoted on the utility project and they are being relocated to F Street rather than in the area where the remains were discovered.

"That allows the process of the interment of the human remains to keep going forward," Cramer says. "The DHPA are able to do their work while we're able to remain on track with our work as well. It's allowing both of us to do what we need to do with this project and also respecting the remains and going through the process of making sure we can go forward with the legal process of the remains as well."

Who was buried here?

The remains are believed to be those of early Quakers, also known as Friends. The area in which they were found was once a Quaker cemetery, specifically the Hicksite sect.

American Quakers split into two sects in the 1820s — Orthodox and Hicksite. In Richmond, that meant the Hicksites established a second Friends cemetery near an existing Orthodox one. It was in use from the early 1800s to the mid-1860s.

"Historical newspaper reports indicated that graves from the cemetery were relocated elsewhere during the late 19th and early 20th centuries before the cemetery grounds were used for residential construction and as a city park," Cramer states. However, the construction of U.S. 27 in the 1950s resulted in the identification of an unknown number of remaining graves, which were reinterred on site beneath a granite marker which is still in place."

INDOT reports it did a geophysical survey and excavation on the site prior to this most recent construction to make sure there were no graves in the area. But the utility work, Cramer says, took place outside of the INDOT-investigated area.

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Cramer says efforts will be made to notify the decedents if any of the remains are able to be identified.

That seems unlikely.

Quaker burial traditions

"Quakers have traditionally, at least until 1860s or 1870s, believed that tombstones were a vanity that served only to distinguish some people from others," explains Thomas Hamm, professor of History and Quaker Scholar in Residence at Earlham College.

"Officially, marking graves was prohibited in Quaker burial grounds. That was a rule that was sometimes violated, but the indications we have are that the Hicksite Friends here in Richmond, were quite strict about it."

Hamm says a newspaper story from 1856 recounts how a grieving husband violated the rules and placed a maker on his wife's grave. The tombstone was reportedly broken and thrown over the burying ground fence.

By the 1860s, Hamm says, the graveyard appeared to no longer be in use. Most burials had shifted to the outskirts of the city where it was more peaceful and they were less likely to be disturbed.

"In the early 20th century there was a concerted effort to try to remove all of the known graves from both of the Quaker burying grounds that remained at the site. The graves that could be identified were moved to the Earlham Cemetery, which is the main Richmond city cemetery, or to a couple of other Quaker burial grounds on the outskirts of town. Nevertheless, because you had so many unmarked graves, it's not at all surprising that not every grave was located, and that anytime you do any sort of systematic excavation at the site, you're going to turn up human remains," says Hamm.

While Hamm does not speak for the broader Quaker community in Richmond, he says he hasn't heard any negative reactions about the remains being unearthed or the reinterment process.

"I think, first of all, we recognize that probably the original responsibility would have been ours to make sure that all of the graves were moved in the first place. And all indications are that the INDOT people have been handling the remains that they found quite respectfully," he says.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.