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Up to 7000 Former Mental Institution Patients are Buried Beneath a Mississippi Medical Center

The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi is home to six health science schools—and a sobering history. Long ago, the state’s first mental institution sat on the Center’s present-day grounds, and from 2013 to 2014, construction efforts revealed thousands of coffins, all of which belonged to former patients. Now, instead of exhuming and burying each body, a team of researchers want to analyze and preserve some remains and construct a memorial and visitor's center to honor their memory.

The "Insane Asylum," as the facility was once called, was built in 1855, thanks to the advocacy efforts of mental health crusader Dorothea Dix. These types of hospitals have a grim reputation today, but back then, they were considered to be humane alternatives to the jails, attics, and prisons that commonly held (and notoriously mistreated) people with mental illnesses.

The asylum was likely an improvement for some residents, but conditions there still weren’t great: More than one in four patients died between 1855 and 1877, and at one point, the hospital’s population swelled to around 6000 residents. In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to the State Hospital at Whitfield’s present-day location, and in the 1950s the University of Mississippi began building its medical center.

In 2013, construction for a road revealed 66 coffins. The following year, while building a parking garage, ground-penetrating radar showed more than 1000 coffins buried beneath the site. According to estimates, up to 7000 bodies may lie beneath the Medical Center’s grounds.

It would cost upward of $21 million to exhume and rebury each body. Biological anthropologist Molly Zuckerman, who works at the university, told Laboratory Equipment this is "because ethical and professional standards within archaeology have to be followed in their removal." That's why Zuckerman and a team of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and bioethicists have formed a group called the Asylum Hill Research Consortium. To learn more about asylum life during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they want to build a lab to study patients’ remains, clothing, and coffins, as well as a visitor’s center and a memorial.

This plan would cost $400,000 a year, for at least eight years, and outside researchers could join the project if they received grant funding. But aside from cutting costs, the project would provide academics with an invaluable resource, Zuckerman tells USA Today: "It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized," she says. (Research projects examining the 66 patients found in 2013 have already yielded findings about patients' health, lifestyles, and diets, according to Smithsonian.)

But above all, consortium members say, it's a dignified way to remember the patients who died and were buried on asylum grounds instead of with their families. "We have inherited these patients," Ralph Didlake, director of the university’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, tells USA Today. "We want to show them care and respectful management." In the future, a full list of the people who lived and died at the asylum will also be posted online.

[h/t USA Today]

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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
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Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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iStock
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
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iStock

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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