She was a middle-aged white woman, most likely a settler. And she was buried with care in Hastings more than a century and a half ago.
Of this much Brian Hoffman is sure. But the rest of her story — where she came from, how she died, how she came to rest in that spot — is shrouded in mystery.
“I do feel like this is a person, and not an archaeological site,” the archaeologist said. “I do feel a little bit of a somberness, or a seriousness; I’d like to think that we’re treating these people with respect and doing the right thing, to carefully remove them if they have to be removed.”
Hoffman is part of group of scientists trying to find out more about the skeletal remains that were found this week at the site of a CVS pharmacy that is about to go up on Sibley Street, near the LeDuc Historic Estate.
“To me, the fact she was put in a coffin,” he said, means “somebody cared for her when she passed away.”
The skeleton was discovered Wednesday afternoon by construction workers digging footings for the new structure, said Police Chief Bryan Schafer.
The workers thought they had stumbled on a crime scene and called police. They in turn summoned Hoffman and Susan Myster, a noted forensic anthropologist and professor at Hamline University, when they realized they had an archaeological mystery on their hands.
Such “accidental discoveries” are typically handled by the Office of the State Archaeologist, said Hoffman, associate professor and chair of the anthropology department at Hamline. Cases involving American Indian burial sites are taken up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Although they may never know the skeleton’s identity, further forensic testing could reveal a surprising amount of information about the woman, via so-called musculoskeletal markers, Hoffman said.
“The bones contain little traces of your life history: activities she may been involved in or maybe injuries she might have suffered,” he said. “Your muscles and your bones sort of adjust to that activity, and there’s a faint hint of that history that’s recorded in your bones.”
What anthropologists do know, based on her bone structure, is that the woman was almost certainly of European descent and in “her middle years,” Hoffman said. The skull’s front teeth were missing, or researchers may have been able to determine her racial makeup sooner.
“The incisors of Indians are shaped differently from non-Indians,” said State Archaeologist Scott Anfinson. “So if you have the front teeth, you can usually say ‘Indians’ or ‘not Indians,’ almost immediately.”
Further testing will be carried out this week, before the remains are handed over to the state archaeology office.
Also found at the site were artifacts near the remains. That includes several machine-cut coffin nails, indicating that the body had been buried sometime in the latter part of the 1800s, when Hastings, incorporated in 1857, was nothing more than a backwater trading post.
“What we do think is that it probably dates to a time when this would have been farm country, but we don’t think it’s a church cemetery or an organized cemetery,” Hoffman said.
The likeliest explanation, according to Anfinson, is that the woman was buried in an unmarked plot.
“Thousands of little cemeteries like that across the state never made it to the register of deeds, they never made it to the county recorder’s office,” he said. “And in high development times like now, we’re going to hit more of them.”