A Skull Discovery in Downtown Nashville

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 18

Sarah Levithol Eckhardt
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

An important part of what the Tennessee Division of Archaeology does is respond to instances where unidentified and unmarked human remains and/or burials have been found. Often these discoveries are made during the course of construction projects. Once human remains are found, Tennessee state law requires that all construction work in the area must stop and that the Sheriff, Medical Examiner/Coroner, and State Archaeologists must be notified. These officials must then determine if the remains are evidence of a crime. If not, then the State Archaeologist advises the property owner on the next steps that must be taken. Every case is different, and the following describes a recent example that occurred this summer in Nashville.

On June 8th, 2015, a construction crew working in downtown Nashville discovered the partial remnants of a human skull at the corner of Elliston Place and 21st Ave. No other human remains, grave shafts, or coffin fragments were found at the site, and the Medical Examiner determined that the skull was not of criminal interest. State Archaeologist Mike Moore and historic archaeologist Ben Nance, both with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, responded to the scene and tentatively identified the remains as historic in age based on their location in the stratigraphy.

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Photo showing the stratigraphy of the site.

The photo above shows the stratigraphy observed that day, with the partial skull in the foreground. Below the current road surface you can see the remnants of a brick paved road that probably dates to the early to mid-20th century. Below the bricks were what appeared to be railroad ties. These wooden ties were determined to have been from an old trolley car line that ran down Elliston Place during the 1920s. The skull was recovered from below this trolley car line. No prehistoric artifacts were associated with the skull, which along with it’s position in historic fill beneath the rail ties suggested the remains were of historic and not Native American origin.

Historic research conducted by Ben Nance revealed that the skull is probably from a 19th century burial related to the families that owned large farms in the area, possibly the Elliston family. It was also determined that that the burial had been previously disturbed by the installation of a water pipe in the early 20th century. It was this activity that most likely disarticulated the skull from the rest of the skeleton and destroyed any evidence of a formal burial.

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Detail from the 1914 Sanborn Fire Insurance map for Nashville. The red star shows the approximate location of where the remains were found. A six-inch water pipe is also shown down the middle of Elliston Place as a dotted line.

Dr. Shannon Hodge from the MTSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology analyzed the skull and believes it to be that of an adult male who was at least 40 years old. It appears that the person had some arthritis and that they performed a lot of heavy lifting. Due to the fragmentary state of the skull and lack of other remains, Hodge was unable to determine much else about the individual.

Because the skeletal remains were isolated and not associated with a formal grave, it was determined that no cemetery termination process was required, and following the TDOA investigation the construction project was cleared to continue. The remains of this individual are now held at the Division of Archaeology.

Editor’s note: For more information on accidental discoveries of human remains, please consult information provided by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

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