Skulls, skeletal remains found at Great Barrington construction site


GREAT BARRINGTON >> The workers were from Hewins Construction. Local guys.

It was one of those routine jobs: they were digging a foundation for new house in the VanDeusenville section of town.

They were working at the job site last Thursday, an unseasonably warm day for late January.

Then they found the human skull.

No, this is not an episode of "Bones," the prime-time forensic thriller on Fox. This was real life.

Great Barrington Police Chief William R. Walsh detailed the discovery of the skull — and ultimately a second, along with two sets of skeletal remains — in a statement released on Wednesday.

After the skull was unearthed, police contacted the state Medical Examiner's Office, which dispatched forensic anthropologist James T. Pokines on Friday.

Using hand tools, Pokines began digging around the site and unearthed an entire skeleton, which was intact, and another skull that was in pieces. He determined that the skeleton belonged to a male teenager.

The skull found the previous day, Pokines said, belonged to an adult African-American woman.

On Tuesday, a team of state archaeologists were dispatched to the site and they unearthed skeletal remains belonging to the initial skull that was found, Walsh said.

Pokines estimated that the remains dated from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, but historian Gary Leveille, a member of the town's Historical Commission, thinks they could be much older.

Leveille said the find fits in with the historical accounts of slaves buried in unmarked graves in the 18th century.

"The Van Deusens owned slaves," he said.

The Park Street site, which recently had been cleared of trees and heavy brush, is south of the old VanDeusenville Cemetery, formerly the Pelton Brook Burial Grounds. Leveille said it is now ringed with police tape.

Leveille said Pokines' estimate that the skeletons were buried in the area in the late 19th or early 20th century was "puzzling ... because the burial of slaves in the area was much earlier."

He said the police report did not specify the race of the young man, making it possible that he was also an African-American.

"Although, if these skeletons are that old, then those were skeletons of Africans, not African-Americans," he said.

Another local historian and author, Bernard Drew, pointed out that the excavation was near the site of the former Van Deusen manor house, long since taken down.

Drew said there is a much older excavation in that area, from which Drew believes stones for the houses were taken.

He confirmed Leveille's assertion that the Van Deusens, one of the early families in town, owned slaves, burying them in the area that was dug up. A number of Dutch families in that area owned slaves, he said.

But Drew said it was also possible the skeletons are from a later era, because for many decades, people could not afford burial stones.

All the remains have been transported to the Medical Examiner's Office for further examination.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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