Discovery of graves delays medical center expansion

Posted on Feb 17 2014 - 8:38am by Drew Jansen

The University of Mississippi Medical Center. Photo: UMMC Communications.

University of Mississippi Medical Center authorities discovered 1800 to 2000 graves last week where they planned to build three different facilities on the UMMC campus in Jackson.

The location south of University Drive included about half of the total bodies found and delayed the construction of a parking garage by roughly six months. Architects relocated the garage and redesigned it to fit the new site. The presence of 1,000 bodies north of University Drive could delay the construction of the Mississippi Children’s Justice Center (MCJC) and the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge(ACSHL).

It will cost roughly 3000 dollars to excavate and rebury each body. UMMC intends to avoid disturbing the burial sites as much as possible rather than redepositing the bodies elsewhere.

UMMC authorities suspect the presence of graves in the area is due to the former location of the Mississippi State Insane Asylum. UMMC hired the Cobb Institute of Archeology at Mississippi State University to test the areas in use before beginning construction. The asylum operated from 1855 to 1935. By 1930, the asylum had increased its number of patients from 150 to 2,649.

According to UMMC representative Jack Majurak, UMMC has known of a possible cemetery on site.

“The surprise is really the density and the number,” he said.

MSU Associate Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the University’s Involvement at UMMC  Nicholas Herrmann believes the graves are most likely those of asylum patients. He cites the quantity, uniformity, organization of the burials as indications that they constitute an asylum cemetery.

According to Hermann, the UMMC property’s history includes use in the siege of Jackson by federal troops in 1863, as well as possibly a church with an associated graveyard and a field for burying unknown or indigent individuals. These past uses have culminated in three separate discoveries of burials underneath the campus.

The Cobb Institute first worked with UMMC in fall 2012 to excavate and examine 66 coffins uncovered during construction of University Drive, the area between the two plots containing the most recent grave discoveries.

UMMC employees also unearthed and reburied 44 bodies while working on a new steam line for a laundry facility roughly 20 years ago.

“History in Mississippi is always right there in front of you. It’s so tangible, and this is a great example of history intersecting with the modern day,” Mazurak said.

Researchers from the Cobb Institute discovered the most recent burials using ground-penetrating radar, magnetometer measurements and exploratory trenches.

Junior economics major and Jackson native Alex Ray expressed his appreciation for Jacksons history.

“Findings such as these simply add more depth to the city. We’re fortunate to have well-educated people preserving the city’s history,” said Ray.

Graduate and undergraduate students from MSU have worked on the excavation project on a volunteer basis. The Cobb Institute has also hired former students to help. Cobb Institute Archeologist and Co-Director of the UMMC project Derek Anderson stated his excitement concerning the project.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for excavating human remains in general, and considering the fact this is only a couple hours away and there’s good historic documentation, it’s been an amazing opportunity for them,” he said.

UMMC has not yet signed a construction contract for any of the three facilities. UMMC authorities are still discussing whether they can construct the MCJC or the AMSHL at the original site without significant impact to the graves.

— Drew Jansen