Skip to main content

IUPUI assists in delicate work of identifying and relocating residents of Bethel Cemetery

Dec 6, 2018

Description of the following video:

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. It is of a field site in front of the Indianapolis International Airport. Dozens of people are digging in what was a 19th-century cemetery. There are white awnings above where the workers are digging.]

[Words appear in top-left corner: IUPUI presents]

Jeremy Wilson speaks in voiceover: The Bethel Cemetery is located on the property of the Indianapolis International Airport …

[Video: A virtual, 3D model of what the cemetery looked like in the 19th century. The model moves from side to side, and tiny markings are visible that indicate headstones.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: … and it is a 19th-century – predominantly 19th-century cemetery. The first individual looks to have been interred in the ground around 1827, and use of the cemetery continues for about 100 years thereafter.

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Anthropologists are working at a dig site. They are digging up graves from a 19th-century cemetery.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: Field work at the cemetery started in August of 2017, and that was a preliminary kind of analysis of what was out there. There were about 146 or 147 legible headstones.

[Video: Jeremy Wilson, an associate professor of anthropology at IUPUI, appears on camera.]

[Words appear: Jeremy Wilson, Associate Professor of Anthropology at IUPUI]

Wilson speaks: And from there, Cardno, our industry partner, did geophysical work to detect unmarked graves, and then this past summer, we, meaning IUPUI as well as the University of Indianapolis, partnered …

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Two anthropologists are digging in the ground. They are digging up a gravesite from the 19th century. Both are holding shovels.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: … with Cardno and the airport to exhume the cemetery in advance of repatriation.

[Video: A virtual, 3D model of a skeleton in a gravesite. The model moves from side to side.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: We are taking somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 photos per burial, and we are able to reconstruct the remains in place – or in situ, as we say in archaeology. And then from there, once that and other documentation is done, we would exhume everything from the grave shaft including the remains, personal items and then most of the artifacts where it related to the coffins themselves.

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Anthropologists are using devices to help them sift through dirt found from gravesites.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: During the field season, we had about 15 students from IUPUI, and then another 10 or so from the University of Indianapolis.

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Three students are using shovels to dig in the ground at the gravesite.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: I have two graduate students that are working on the project and then another half-dozen undergraduates that are assistants …

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Three students are using a device to help sift through dirt found from a gravesite.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: … that are helping us with the inventory and the analysis of each individual we recover.

[Video: Allie Powell, a second-year graduate student, appears on camera.]

[Words appear: Allie Powell, second-year graduate student in applied anthropology]

Powell speaks: So, on this project, I guess, my role would be as a skeletal analyst. We do all of the inventory and sort of age and sex estimation on all of the individuals.

[Video: A close-up of a teaching skeleton. A teacher uses his hands to point at certain points of the skeleton for teaching purposes.]

Powell speaks in voiceover: We use a program called Osteoware that sort of has different modules where you can do the inventory, age and sex estimation, any sort of measurements. So usually our day sort of starts with – we get an individual. We try to lay them out on the table, in anatomical position …

[Video: Powell appears on camera]

Powell speaks: … and then we just go through each element, such as the skull or the thorax, or the pelvis, and we go through and mark what is there and what is absent, and how well it is preserved.

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Two anthropologists are digging in a gravesite. One is putting findings in a brown bag.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: The primary goal of this project was to first exhume …

[Video: Wilson appears on camera.]

Wilson speaks: … the individuals in a respectful and dignified way, and then identify them to the best of our ability, and then ultimately …

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. It is of a field site in front of the Indianapolis International Airport. Dozens of people are digging in what was a 19th-century cemetery. There are blue awnings above where the workers are digging.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: … we are going to be reinterring these individuals in a protected cemetery within the next calendar year.

[Video: A virtual, 3D model of what the cemetery looked like in the 19th century. The model moves from side to side, and tiny markings are visible that indicate headstones.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: Every unmarked grave will get a headstone, and that’s important in and of itself.

[Video: Wilson appears on camera.]

Wilson speaks: And then the rows of individuals that everyone recognizes at cemeteries today will be put in place just as we discovered them. So, the headstones that were there will be put above the individuals that they associate with …

[Video: A photograph is being slowly zoomed in on. Two anthropologists are digging at a gravesite. They are lying on their stomachs, on plank boards over the site, as they dig.]

Wilson speaks in voiceover: … and then we’ll add additional headstones so that everyone is identified.

[Screen goes to black]

[IU trident appears]

[Words appear: IUPUI]

[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]

[Words appear: iupui.edu]

[END OF TRANSCRIPT]

When Indiana was still part of the western frontier of America, not long after its statehood began, some of its dead were interred at a cemetery in farm country a few miles west of the capital city of Indianapolis.

This being the 1820s, the deceased would have arrived via horse-drawn carriages. Some 100 years later, when Bethel Cemetery served as a burial ground for the last time, it’s possible that motorized vehicles would have been involved.

Today, a century after that and nearly 200 years after Bethel Cemetery began, the surrounding area isn’t farmland – it’s the Indianapolis International Airport. And with the cemetery’s land being in an important area for stormwater runoff, the price of progress required a relocation of Bethel Cemetery.

As one might imagine, it’s a delicate process. Faculty and students from the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI are playing a big part in making it progress as smoothly as possible – and are learning a lot more about the people whose final resting place is in Bethel Cemetery.

Mapping out a plan

There were about 146 legible headstones at Bethel Cemetery, but they didn’t tell the entire story of the property. An environmental services company named Cardno, contracted to head up the relocation project, did a geophysical analysis that detected many more unmarked graves and estimated that 400 to 450 individuals were interred.

But when some 60 workers, including two archaeological field schools from IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis, descended on the property earlier this summer and began digging by hand, the final count was 540 souls.

A team of archaeologists from IUPUI helped at Bethel Cemetery.
IUPUI graduate students Allie Powell, left, and Gretchen Zoeller are working with associate professor of anthropology Jeremy Wilson on the Bethel Cemetery project.Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

“The additional individuals are not uncommon in a historic cemetery,” explained Jeremy Wilson, an associate professor of anthropology at IUPUI and leader of an IUPUI team that included 15 students. “Not only were there missing headstones, but there were also instances of family members buried together.”

Working under tents for 17 weeks, many in the hot summer sun, the teams of archaeologists dug by hand with extreme care.

“It’s a really slow, detail-oriented process, where you’re slowly removing layers of dirt, trying to be careful,” said Gretchen Zoeller, a first-year graduate student in IUPUI’s applied anthropology program. “The tools that we were working with could do damage to the bones if you’re not careful. So it could take a whole day just to get one skeleton out.”

Levels of preservation varied greatly. Over the decades, gravesites had shifted and coffins collapsed, leading to damage. A shifting water table added to the challenges.

At every turn, photos were taken and notes compiled about everything that was found – including personal items such as rings, jewelry and buttons from deteriorated clothing – and how it was found. That process resulted in about 150 to 200 photos per burial site.

On campus, the individuals are now being examined and reconstructed in place, and answers about their lives are coming forward.

‘Truly the American life’

A computer program called Osteoware is used to help tell the story about people who largely lived long before running water and electricity.

“We just go through each element, such as the skull or the thorax or the pelvis,” said Allie Powell, a second-year graduate student in the IUPUI applied anthropology program. “We can learn a lot from teeth and looking at the cavities and how much they were worn – we can infer things about their diet or maybe the things they were eating.”

Measurements such as the size of the pelvis help the researchers determine the sex of the individual. The length of long bones such as thigh bones can help calculate height. Cranial measurements can be used in assigning ages.

Other clues to the individuals’ lives can be found in cracks and rough areas on bones. Osteoarthritis isn’t uncommon in those discovered to be older than 40. Nor is evidence of fractures that never fully healed, a sign of medical care from the time.

“I have a specific interest in health and disease, so it’s been really interesting to just see some of the indications of stress on individuals and poor health,” Powell said. “We’ve seen some patterns of things that would indicate that, whether it’s something in their diets or maybe different diseases that they were fighting off.”

These lives weren’t necessarily easy.

“It’s truly the American life in many respects,” Wilson said. “You have individuals who were former service members. You have farmers who toiled in the fields.”

“And we often forget about what mortality was like in the 19th century,” Wilson continued. “Many farming families, as they were out there in Decatur Township, would have eight or even more children. But a number of those, unfortunately, would die in infancy or early childhood. That’s reflected in the number of what we would call “juveniles” at the Bethel Cemetery.

“It really had an impact on our students to see these different walks of life all reflected.”

The final steps

Away from the bustle of the airport, the denizens of Bethel Cemetery will get a new home in 2019. Every previously unmarked burial will get a headstone.

There are deceased who served the Civil War and the War of 1812, among seven or eight known veterans from the cemetery. They received military escorts when they were moved, and they will get the same when they are transferred to the relocated Bethel Cemetery.

Every effort is being made to identify individuals, and living descendants of the deceased have been kept abreast of this project, but it is expected that not every burial will be identified.

“The primary goal of this project was to first exhume the individuals in a respectful and dignified way, and then identify them to the best of our ability,” Wilson said.

On a practical level, the IUPUI students are building graduate student theses out of this project. But in digging deeper, literally and figuratively, they are getting much more.

“It’s about putting together a story, or the most accurate view of the past that we can get,” Powell said.

Media Contact

IU Newsroom

John Schwarb

Senior Communications Specialist/Content Strategist, IUPUI

More stories