Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Skeleton unearthed at Rochester New Hampshire work site: 19th century cemetery in the middle of Exit 15 construction project

Skeleton unearthed at Rochester work site: 19th century cemetery in the middle of Exit 15 construction project

By Joey Cresta

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

John Huff/Staff photographer State archaeologists work on a grave site near the Exit 15-construction project Monday.

ROCHESTER — At least one nearly-intact skeleton has been unearthed near the Spaulding Turnpike widening project at Exit 15 as the state's excavation of the 19th-century Legro cemetery got under way last week.

Richard Longo, the city historian, through research knew that the remains of a number of individuals, including a Civil War veteran, were buried in the middle of the construction zone. Longo hasn't seen the remains, but knows of the archaeological discoveries there only through third-party reports and photographs that have been e-mailed to him.

Longo has not visited the site even though the city named him a member of the Legro Cemetery Committee to allow him access as a member of city government. Mayor John Larochelle offered the support after Longo received a letter from John "Chip" Johnson of the Department of Transportation in July telling him that while his past efforts were appreciated, he had to "refrain from visiting the site" for liability issues, as well as to "maintain control" at the site.

Longo said that even after the city made strides to ensure his access to the grave sites, the state restricted him from viewing the excavation alongside anyone else because, as he explained it, "two people would constitute a meeting." Since Longo cannot drive and has no way of getting to the site alone, he said he has had to follow the progress with pictures taken at the excavation.

"Since when is two people a meeting?" Longo said. "If I hadn't found that cemetery, they wouldn't be digging it up."

City Manager John Scruton explained that under state law, a quorum of the committee — in this case, two people — cannot convene on the site.

"I'm wondering how this all will play out," Longo said after Scruton called him Monday offering a ride to the grave site.

The results so far have already surprised Longo. According to Scruton, archaeologists have discovered an adult male, about 5 feet, 11 inches tall and a casket next to him, presumably containing his wife. Longo said those remains, along with other "bits and pieces" surprise him because of the acidity and moistness of the soil in that area. He did not expect such a high level of preservation, he said.

He pointed to the remains as evidence of his qualms with an archaeological endeavor. Only 150 years old, he said the remains are of people with living descendants today and it is much too soon to treat them as if they are "Neanderthal" remains to be examined and studied.

"The person's been dead for 150 years. It'd be like digging up my great-grandfather," Longo said. "We've told the state that from the beginning. It's not old enough. There are still living heirs."

The remains will undergo an examination before being re-interred at the New Rochester Cemetery. The burial, which will include a public ceremony with military honors for the Civil War veteran, could happen this fall, but is more likely to occur in spring, Scruton said.

Scruton disagreed with Longo's assessment that the archaeological work disrespects the deceased. He said the additional work will help identify the remains, which will allow the city to use the original gravestones Longo helped uncover at the site when the remains are re-interred.

He added the excavation shows a "measure of respect" to ensure the state properly cares for the remains. The archaeologists excavate a quarter-inch at a time, making an inadvertent disruption less likely. He said alternative methods used at grave sites in the past were less respectful than what is currently happening at the Legro cemetery.

Representatives with the state did not return calls Monday seeking comment on the dig. Longo is not the only one who has found it difficult to observe the work. The graves are among a small cluster of trees in the bend of an off-ramp leading from the highway to Route 11. A Foster's reporter and photographer attempted to access the site on Monday, but were told to leave until Scruton authorized access.

Scruton later said he had no problems with reporters accessing the site as long as the state gave permission.

"It's their site," he said.

State officials denied the request, at least temporarily, Monday afternoon.

"Because of the sensitive nature of the project at the Legro cemetery, would you please remain off site at least for the moment. If possible, I will talk to our Information Officer tomorrow morning. Once I have, I will or he will get back to you," Joyce McKay, Cultural Resource Manager for the DOT's Bureau of Environment, said in an e-mail.

Scruton said he hopes to escort Longo to the site this morning, adding they would be careful not to discuss official business, so they do not violate the state's rules governing quorums.

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