Grave Losses

Lax laws and uncaring bureaucrats cause Missouri to erase another prehistoric mound

Set high on a limestone bluff, streaked gold at sunset, the burial mound overlooked the entire Meramec River Valley. Inside, some of the bodies were flexed into fetal position, others laid out straight as Uncle Harold. Still others were bundle burials, the bones defleshed and stacked together. Maybe they were the black sheep of the clan. Maybe they were kept in the charnel hut so long their flesh rotted. Maybe, rather than drag home heavy corpses, a warring party left the dead to nature, returning after the birds picked away the flesh and the sun bleached the bones.

What's sure is that the dead rested in peace for 1,000 years or so, enfolded in the earth they'd loved as their mother.

Then a bulldozer tore into that earth.

Once a grave, now it's a Wal-Mart.
Mark Gilliland
Once a grave, now it's a Wal-Mart.
One of the burial mounds atop the bluff, photographed before the bulldozers arrived
Mark Gilliland
One of the burial mounds atop the bluff, photographed before the bulldozers arrived

Fenton needed a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Everybody in Fenton knew that the hillocks above Mound Street were burial mounds. But by the time city residents got wind of plans to destroy them, developer Gary Grewe had contracted to build a bigger and better Wal-Mart on the site.

Missouri is the heart of Wal-Mart country. The world's first supercenter was built in Washington, Mo., in 1988; the 1,000th was christened in St. Robert, Mo., in August 2001. Grewe's Fenton Supercenter slid neatly into place in a $193 million redevelopment plan for Fenton's downtown, with $47 million in tax-increment financing subsidies for the bulldozing.

When we inquired about the archaeological significance of the latest Supercenter, Grewe offered a single comment: "We built a 1.3 million square foot shopping center that's the neatest thing ever built in St. Louis; it's the biggest. I don't like this line of questioning."

At the outset, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, charged with historic preservation, had informed Grewe that any human remains would have to be removed. He hired an engineering firm, SCI, whose archaeologists mapped the site and started digging. They took samples, but they weren't authorized to do pollen and seed counts or radiocarbon dating or document the mound's layers or filter all the soil for bits of pottery, stone and animal bones. No skeletal analyst was on site to examine the bones, which are often so fragile they turn to powder when they're moved -- but can unlock a diary of stresses, diseases, diet, periods of hunger, age, gender and cultural practices.

SCI project director Karl Ruhmann can't comment because SCI signed a confidentiality agreement with the developer. But in the initial field plan submitted to the state, SCI wrote, "A report will be generated that details the biological, cultural, and physical characteristics of the remains." As it became obvious that no one was prepared to pay the attendant costs, the "scope of work" shrank. Contractually, SCI's obligation was a simple one: Get the human remains and get out.

Debra Magruder, who hired on with SCI's crew when the first mound was nearly excavated, says they did that one right. She says that during her first day on the job, in February 1999, the crew's members were shovel-scraping, just the way they're supposed to, lifting thin layers of dirt so they wouldn't miss or damage any artifacts. "But by the time they got to the second mound, where all the burials were, they were so crunched for time that they got approval from Cal [Rea, the state archaeologist overseeing the dig] to start chunking. We were standing on our shovels, picking up dirt and throwing it over our shoulders. There's no telling what got lost."

SCI was glad Magruder had no field experience, she says, "because field school teaches you to go slow, and they wanted us to go fast. It was pretty messy out there at times.

"Just before I started, a femur was found," she adds. "The story I heard was that the guy working in that area thought it was a tree root and used some root clippers and snapped it in half. Then, when they figured out it was a femur, they just covered it and left it, half sticking out, and a looter came and ripped it out of the mound." The femur was indeed protruding from within a stone box chamber. On Feb. 17, a survey crew lifted the tarp and found that someone had dug horizontally into the vault and stolen the bone.

Rea, who has left the DNR, didn't respond to queries about the Fenton dig. "We were told not to talk with anyone about what was going on," adds Magruder. She and five other crew members wrote a letter of complaint to the state, saying they'd been "told that the developer had no legal responsibility to excavate the mounds and he could blast through them if he wanted to."

In July of 1999, the excavation was pronounced finished, and as soon as the last truckload of bones was driven away, earth-movers leveled the mounds. No one had surveyed the periphery, so if there were bundle burials outside the mound -- as archaeologists had found at the Gateway Academy site in St. Louis -- the bones were crunched into dust.

Bones already uncovered by the dig were placed in 26 metal bank boxes and stored at SCI. On July 21, 1999, SCI archaeologist Joseph Galloy, worried that no official report was being prepared, sent a two-page summary of the findings to the DNR. Most of the burials had been found in the larger mound, he reported: "One grave box contained only a pair of articulated hand bones, reminding one of the beheaded and behanded individuals in Mound 72 at Cahokia." Two mass burials were found, one with a wooden crypt or charnel house that looks as if it burned halfway through mound construction. Most of the human remains -- roughly 50 sets -- were encountered beneath larger trees, which may have protected them from pot-hunters. Two bird bones speared one of the skulls. Large mussel shells, ceramics, shell beads and a drilled bear tooth were found in or above graves. The mounds could have been built anytime between the Late Woodland and Early Mississippian periods, 600-1400 AD.

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