A detective story that began last June with an attempted auction of a human skull, reportedly from the battle of Gettysburg, now has a new chapter. A scientific study by the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, conducted at the request of Gettysburg National Military Park, has determined the cranium to be more than 700 years old and from the American Southwest.
The planned auction of the skull, and a number of artifacts that were going to be sold with it, was cancelled due to public outcry and the collection was offered as a donation to Gettysburg National Military Park (GETT). The park asked the Gettysburg Foundation to accept the donation on its behalf.
Douglas W. Owsley and a team of forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History recently completed an examination of the skull and determined, in summary:
- the remains are not those of an American Civil War soldier;
- the remains are those of an American Indian male, aged 22-25;
- the remains are likely dated to approximately 1269 – 1299 AD;
- the remains are likely from the American Southwest; and
- the remains were not removed from the Josiah Benner farm at Gettysburg.
“When we learned of these remains in June we were immediately interested in their respectful treatment, whether they were from a soldier who died at Gettysburg or not,’ said Gettysburg National Military Park Superintendent Ed Clark. “This result is not what we expected but we stand by our commitment to be respectful of these remains, fulfill our responsibilities, and find the best course of action for their final resting place.”
Superintendent Clark also expressed his gratitude for the assistance provided by the scientists and staff of the Smithsonian Institution.
The park and the Gettysburg Foundation are determining Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) responsibilities and the appropriate disposition of the remains.
National Park Service special agents and law enforcement rangers from Gettysburg National Military Park conducted an investigation to determine the provenance of the remains. The investigation continues pending any new information that may come forward.
An examination of the thirteen artifacts that were to be sold with the skull determined that a number were not authentic to the Civil War period, including a Louisiana stamped metal hat or cap plate which was post-war, most likely made for souvenir purposes.
“Our intent has always been to do the right thing with and for the remains,” said Joanne M. Hanley, President of the Gettysburg Foundation. “When the Foundation accepted the skull as a donation, it was the right thing to do to protect it from auction on the open market. We will continue to do the right thing with its future disposition to ensure respect and dignity.”
Background: On June 2, 2014, news stories about the planned auction of the Civil War human remains quickly spread, including comments Gettysburg National Military Park that the sale was disrespectful and “a spectacle.” An unprecedented outcry from concerned citizens–fueled by social media–overwhelmed organizers of the auction, and within six hours the sellers decided to cancel the sale and donate the remains and the artifacts found with them to the Gettysburg Foundation. On the evening of June 2, Joanne Hanley, president of the Gettysburg Foundation, went to Hagerstown, MD, picked up the remains and the artifacts and turned them over to the park for safe keeping.
In 1996 human remains were found at Gettysburg National Military Park after erosion exposed them near a railroad embankment. Scientists from Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History studied those remains as well and determined that they were from the battle of Gettysburg. The remains were interred in a specially designated plot in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg marked, “Unknown Civil War Remains.”
Gettysburg National Military Park is a unit of the National Park System that preserves and protects the resources associated with the Battle of Gettysburg and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and provides an understanding of the events that occurred there within the context of American History. Information is available at www.nps.gov/gett.
The Gettysburg Foundation is a non-profit educational organization working in partnership with the National Park Service to enhance preservation and understanding of the heritage and lasting significance of Gettysburg. The Foundation raised funds for and now operates the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park, which opened in April 2008. In addition to operating the Museum and Visitor Center, the Foundation has a broad preservation mission that includes land, monument and artifact preservation and battlefield rehabilitation—all in support of the National Park Service’s goals at Gettysburg. Information is available at www.gettysburgfoundation.org.
Katie Lawhon, Management Assistant