CHATHAM – The human skull found on the grounds of the Atwood House Museum in December was initially found more than two years ago on the outer beach.
The new information was revealed this week about the skull, which apparently belonged to a Native American and was more than 100 years old. Its discovery by landscapers doing fall cleanup work on Dec. 9 generated considerable interest locally and regionally.
“There's been a lot of interest in it,” said Danielle Jeanloz, director of the Chatham Historical Society, which runs the Atwood House Museum on Stage Harbor Road. “We've never had anything quite like this happen.”
Jeanloz said a plastic bag found near the skull contained a note which stated that the skull was discovered on the outer beach in Chatham two years ago and may have washed up during a storm. She declined to specify where on the outer beach the skull was found.
Both the bag and the skull contained sand, lending credence to the information in the note, she said. She said although she did not see the note, she spoke to several people who had and was authorized to reveal the details by officials at the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs.
Brian McNiff of the Massachusetts Historical Commission declined to comment on the skull, referring to state law stating that the “discovery of and existence of information pertaining to all American Indian burial sites in the Commonwealth” are not public record.
While the Historical Society had hoped that the skull might come back to the Atwood House for display, because it is Native American in origin, protocol requires that it be turned over to the Commission on Indian Affairs for reburial, Jeanloz said.
“They will try to find the most appropriate place,” she said.
The discovery had led to speculation on the origin of the skull, which was clearly old and would have been noticed previously, since Jeanloz said landscape work is done there periodically. It could not have been on the museum grounds long for that reason, she said.
She did not know if the note indicated the skull's whereabouts between the time it was found on the beach and when it was left on the museum grounds, or who originally discovered it. It is not likely that the skull was found at a burial site, since the outer beach along Chatham's east coast hard eroded and built up completely within the past 100 years. The more likely explanation is that the skull was washed onto the beach from another location.
It was not the first time Native American remains were found at the museum, she added. In the 1990s, human bones were discovered in an upstairs attic while other items were being moved. It was determined the bones had been donated to the historical society years before after being found in town at an unknown location, and may even have been on display at one time. It's likely that whoever found them brought them to the museum because of its interest in any historical items related to town, Jeanloz said.
“We're enthusiastic collectors,” she commented.
The bones were determined to be Native American in origin and were given to the state agency, which presumably reburied them, she said.
Indian Affairs officials wanted to use this opportunity to publicize guidelines that should be followed whenever human remains are accidentally discovered, Jeanloz said. The protocol involves first calling the police, who summon the state medical examiner to determine if the remains are more than 100 years old and do no constitute a crime scene. If that's the case, the state archaeologist is called in (see sidebar).
Everyone involved has the same goal of preserving historical artifacts and “connecting the dots” between the past and the present.
“It's nice to see that the state has similar values and goals,” she said.
While the discovery won't lead to a permanent addition to the museum's collection, the experience has been educational, said Jeanloz.
“People in this area are very interested in history and uncovering more about our past,” she said. “We feel this is a very interesting and exciting find.”
Accidental Discovery Of Human Remains
Anyone discovering human remains should take the following steps, according to an advisory put out by the Massachusetts Historical Commission:
Do not touch or disturb the bones.
Notify the state or local police and the regional medical examiner about the discovery and location.
The medical examiner will determine if the remains are human and if they are recent or more than 100 years old. If they are less than 100 years old, a criminal investigation may be warranted. If they are more than 100 years old, the state archaeologist will be notified and will conduct an archaeological investigation of the site to determine the age, cultural association and identity of the burial.
If the remains are Native American, the state commission on Indian Affairs is notified, which will monitor the investigation to ensure that the remains are treated respectfully.
Native American remains are eventually reburied in an appropriate location.
Valuable information can be lost if bones or other artifacts are removed from the site.
For more information, contact the state archaeologist at the Massachusetts Historical Commission at 617-727-8470.
Source: Know How #4, “What to do when human remains are accidentally uncovered,” issued by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.