Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew

When emeritus state archeologist Nick Bellantoni began the process of separating four Revolutionary War-era skeletons from the soil of Ridgefield, Connecticut, he found the soil itself to be a reluctant capitulator. “The bone I can tell you was very fragile, even though for this age it was very well preserved,” he said to an audience at the North Haven campus of Quinnipiac University, “but the soil matrix around it was really a hard-packed loam with pockets of clay. It was like a dentist digging tartar off your teeth.” To safely free the skull of the second burial, he had decided to dig out a block of soil around it.

At an imaging lab several hundred paces from the auditorium, a CT scan of that block is on the monitor. It had been conveyed through the scanner while still inside the box Bellantoni had used to deliver it, and now Jerry Conlogue, Professor Emeritus of Diagnostic Imaging, and Dr. Jaime Ullinger, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Anthropology, are replaying the result. This is before COVID-19’s arrival in Connecticut, when colleagues could still huddle together over their work.

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The effect is like time-lapse photography. As the scanner’s electromagnetic rays had earlier traveled, layer by layer, up through the solid interior of the block, so now images of rocky shapes shift and diminish while a crater—revealed to be the hollow of a 250-year-old cranium—opens up and then narrows on the screen. “The unit collects a cylinder of data,” Conlogue explains, indicating the machine, now dormant and dark, on the other side of the window. “And we can cut that cylinder up from front to back, from top to bottom, or from side to side, or anything in between.” He traces a faint line around the image. “And even without much expertise, you can see that that’s the skull. And you’re looking at it from the side.”

The Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac (BRIQ) is devoted to turning non-invasive medical imagers—the machines that see through us—into machines that see through the remains of us, as well as other archeological finds. The remarkable advantage of this is apparent on the screen. From the layers of flat images, a three-dimensional image of the whole block can be assembled. Then it can be visually penetrated again from any angle. Conlogue moves his mouse and the scanner’s program reassembles the pixels, effectively turning the image to get a pristine look right along the axis of the skeleton’s jaw. “I’ve got to go through this 3D puzzle and try to figure out what plane stuff is in… There is a lot of shape recognition… So I can make a line through here and see part of his maxilla.”

When a pair of pristine-looking molars appear on the screen, the work at BRIQ then crosses disciplines. “What I’m trying to do is give Jaime as many views of the teeth as possible so that she can make an assessment,” Conlogue says. Ullinger rolls her chair closer and says, “It looks like they still have a lot of enamel left. You can still see bumps on the crowns that Jerry’s pointing out there. So it doesn’t look like they’re too flat. We could look for… any kind of hole or indication that there was an infection or drainage underneath the root. It does not look like there was anything like that.”

Much about people’s lives, Ullinger explains, can be extracted from their teeth—including their rough age, their diet, where they might have grown up. “Your teeth don’t fix themselves. if you chip a tooth, your tooth doesn’t grow back the way your bone would. So basically after a tooth forms, it also is a little record of your childhood. If you get very sick or… if you didn’t have enough food or if you had some kind of systemic biological stress, you can get certain markers in your teeth that your body can never fix.” Throughout this analysis, the actual skull and its teeth remain in safe storage, hidden in their block of packed soil. The CT scans, being a perfect visual assembly of the block’s every square inch, will eventually guide Bellantoni and his team when they begin the process of removing all the soil.

The first skeleton was discovered by a contractor working in the dirt basement of an 18th-century Ridgefield house. The owners first called the police, but Bellantoni took over the case when it was determined that the skeleton was easily over 100 years old. “So when I’m driving down there—you know, you try not to make preconceived ideas of what you have. But I’m a bit cognizant of this battle in the back of my mind.” Ridgefield was indeed the site of a Revolutionary War battle, in April of 1777, when many of the patriots were farmers using their own rifles and uniforms. The British general William Tryon had marched 1,900 soldiers from a ship docked in Westport to an arsenal in Danbury, which he then destroyed unimpeded. He was met on his return trip through Ridgefield by two regiments totaling 700, both then based in New Haven, one of them led by Benedict Arnold. “‘Could this possibly be a Revolutionary War soldier from the battle of Ridgefield?’” Bellantoni remembers postulating. “Well, you’re not going to accept that hypothesis without information.”

The British and patriot armies typically buried their dead in situ—not far from where they died—but so, in a sense, did civilians. “In New England in the colonial period,” Bellantoni explained, “it was quite common for families to bury their dead in the backyard.” And the east-west orientation of the second skeleton also suggested a customary Christian family burial, 15 feet away from the house’s footprint at the time. “However, when we uncovered the third burial, we found another individual in extremely close association with . We’re not talking separate graves. They were in the same burial shaft. Arms and legs were commingled together.” And they had been robust men, averaging almost six feet in height, with leg bones that suggested long, load-bearing marches, and no women or children among them.

On another monitor, Conlogue and Ullinger show me one of those leg bones—a femur—from the second skeleton. Conlogue expresses the team’s consensus. “The joint surfaces are smooth and the internal architecture of the bone is really nicely well-defined. This is not an old man. Because the bone is so thick, this is probably someone who’s healthy with well-defined musculature.” Signs of trauma in the bones—the notch of a bayonet, say—may yet place them on the battlefield, but Bellantoni anticipates many months of further analysis before that question can be answered.

Conlogue founded BRIQ, along with Ron Beckett, Professor Emeritus of Health Sciences, in 1999, while they were both moonlighting as co-hosts of The Mummy Roadshow on the National Geographic Channel. They traveled the world with endoscopic cameras and X-ray machines in a suitcase to examine mummies without having to disassemble them. Possessing what Conlogue believes to be the only CT scanner adapted for non-clinical use in the country means that now the mummies do the traveling. “If we can get specimens from the Peabody Museum or the Smithsonian, we don’t have to go. They bring them to us.” For the purpose of legibility, bones are different from mummies only insofar as they arrive in boxes and bags. Not having been mummified, their connective ligaments are decomposed by the soil. (In the case of the skeleton found on the New Haven Green in 2012—also scanned by the BRIQ team—it was additionally the growth and ultimate failure of an ancient oak tree’s root system that had disassembled it.) So before the parts are scanned, the bioanthropologists must assemble them. “When we lay a human skeleton out like this,” Ullinger says, “we put it in anatomical order. It would be as if that person was still an individual laying on the table.”

Bones that are unearthed this way undergo a series of transformations in the course of being studied. These bones also pass through Yale University, where they are cleaned of all traces of their burial, then forensically analyzed. In the scanners at BRIQ, the physical facts of the bones—their precise measurements, an exacting map of their contours and interiors—are transferred from them. In the course of study, however, personhood is transferred back. If it is determined that they were indeed soldiers—on either side of the barricade—the plan is to re-bury them with full military honors. Even if they are not, a surprisingly specific understanding of who they were will be re-interred with them.

Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac
370 Bassett Rd, North Haven (map)

Written by David Zukowski. Image 1 provided courtesy of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac. Image 2, featuring Jerry Conlogue and Jaime Ullinger, photographed by David Zukowski..

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