Dirt on the Dead
Forensic archaeologist’s job keeps him in close contact with the departed
In Dane Magoon’s office, dead people are everywhere. They’re in containers on the floor, they’re spread across side tables and stacked in big blue Rubbermaid tubs. There are skulls on bakery trays and finger bones and femurs on flat pans, with more of the same bagged and cataloged in file boxes towering behind his desk. Sitting for an interview in his small vanilla box of an office, it can definitely feel a little crowded.
Magoon is an archaeologist with Cultural Resources Inc., a private firm that helps property owners manage and preserve historical artifacts. That said, his job description requires that he nose around in graveyards and, when they’re threatened by development, that he carefully excavate their contents. His objective: Learn as much as he can about the occupants, then find another place to put them back in the ground.
Magoon, whose thick hair and beard have the weft of a welcome mat, is a cheery guy who wears T-shirts and canvas pants to work. In his off hours, he plays bass in a band and likes to note that he can see Bandito’s, the Museum District bar, from his office window on Patterson Avenue. One imagines that when he was 8 years old, he envisioned having this exact job.
In fact, Magoon’s interest in archaeology goes back about that far. Growing up in Williamsburg, he was privy to digs and research in that area. He earned a bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology from VCU in 1992 and eventually went on to graduate studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has yet to turn in his Ph.D. dissertation. If his bone-stacked office is any indication, he’s been too swamped with fieldwork.
Magoon’s actual title — senior principal investigator — says a bit more about his daily grind. He’s currently studying the bones in his office to find out everything he can about a Hanover County graveyard’s bounty, including the number of people buried there, their race, health, diet, age at death, even their individual identities.
“There’s nothing more intentional than a burial,” says Magoon, suggesting that graves are essentially important time capsules. In this particular case, the bones in his office are the remains of those associated with the Timberlake family of Hanover County, who resided, since the 1780s, on a farm known as Rutland. The 1,200-acre plot was recently sold to the developer HHHunt, which is planning a mixed-use neighborhood. By law, any development that requires federal permits also requires archaeology, and indeed, when HHHunt needed a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, it triggered the dig.
HHHunt, in this case, was lucky — they knew about the graveyard in advance. In fact, Donald Timberlake, a surviving family member, assisted Magoon’s team with the project. Many developers have no idea they’ve bought a piece of land with an old graveyard on it. Tripping across one with a backhoe can bring everything to a grinding halt.
“They thought there were six people buried here,” Magoon says of the Rutland site. He produced a sheet of paper that held his own survey of the grounds. It told a much different story. After an exhaustive excavation of what Magoon calls “grave shafts,” his team discovered 21 skeletons in the ground. “I never assume anything,” he says, preferring, so to speak, to let the dirt do the talking.
Magoon has only clues about to whom the additional skeletons belonged. Certain aberrations in teeth hint at African-American descent, which would, considering the time period, indicate a slave, while chemical analysis of bones combined with artifacts in the shaft can help determine if the ancestry was African or European.
On site, after exposing the tops of the grave shafts, Magoon’s team establishes the full perimeter of the graveyard, then digs twice as deep as the graves. “We keep going, just to make sure there’s nobody downstairs,” he says, noting the frequency of double–depth graves. Even back then, “there was no room to expand on one plot. People want to be buried together.”
Finding intact skeletons is a rare occurrence. “Virginia has very acidic soil,” says Magoon. “Once the coffin is breached, things go away pretty quickly.” For this reason, all that might be left of someone is a few foot bones, or part of a skull, brittle and hog-tied with several centuries’ worth of fine roots.
So intensive is Magoon’s study that he even saves the dirt. He points to a lump of brown crumbs in a small box that might contain tooth chips, ear bones, even individual strands of hair, all of which can be studied as evidence. When the work is finally complete, Magoon will hire a funeral home to re-inter the bones, working with the family to create a special marker and respectful burial.
One of the most spectacular finds at Rutland was the grave shaft of the family patriarch, A.B. Timberlake, who was buried in a cast-iron coffin. “You had to be very wealthy to afford one of these,” says Magoon. Timberlake, who died in 1863, would have shelled out 45 bucks for the thing — a serious dough-roll considering the going rate for a wooden coffin back then was little more than a dollar.
Cast-iron coffins are of particular interest to archaeologists and anthropologists. “The level of preservation in these things is scary,” says Magoon. In fact, he says the “Body Farm” — the forensic-anthropology center at the University of Tennessee popularized by author Patricia Cornwell — was conceived in the wake of the discovery of a cast-iron coffin.
The story goes something like this: An unwitting contractor bonked it with a backhoe then called the developer, who in turn called the cops. When it was eventually unearthed and opened, the cops, not realizing what they had, believed the person inside had been killed recently. In fact, Magoon says, “it turned out to be a Civil War soldier.” He’d been dead for 120 years.
The coffin of A.B. Timberlake wasn’t so pristine, though it was arresting enough to attract scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, who swooped down from D.C. to study it. The coffin’s viewing window had been compromised, cracked and breached by water, which led to decomposition of the flesh and select pieces of clothing. Still, Timberlake’s chin hair and velvet lapels were intact. It was as if you could still assess the dignity of the old man, dressed for the occasion, as if he’d been waiting all this time for Dane Magoon to dig him up.