After spending the morning digging up a sidewalk, the backhoe operator for River City Construction stuck the bucket into soft ground behind the Lincoln Branch library Tuesday afternoon, pulled it back, and exposed the brick base of a grave marker monument. One scoop, and the mystery of whether human remains remain buried beneath the construction zone of the new $5.5 million Lincoln library addition was unraveling.
After spending the morning digging up a sidewalk, the backhoe operator for River City Construction stuck the bucket into soft ground behind the Lincoln Branch library Tuesday afternoon, pulled it back, and exposed the brick base of a grave marker monument.
One scoop, and the mystery of whether human remains remain buried beneath the construction zone of the new $5.5 million Lincoln library addition was unraveling. An hour later, archaeologists had outlined the top of 13 distinct burial spots.
"It does not appear that these have been moved," said archaeologist M. Catherine Bird of Midwest Archaeological Research Services, the firm hired by the Peoria Public Library to search for human remains on the site. "It looks like they are still there."
"That's what I was afraid of," said Roger Anderson, the supervisor of all five projects on Peoria Public Library's $28 million agenda to overhaul the library system.
Excavation began Tuesday morning at the site of the new Lincoln library branch as a team of archaeologists looked for signs of burial vaults and human remains in what was the city cemetery in the mid-1800s.
They almost immediately found what they were looking for.
"It's a little disturbing," said Anderson, who held out hope for the discovery of a minimum number of human remains. "But we knew they'd probably find something."
Before the Peoria Public Library can build the 18,000-square-foot addition behind the Lincoln branch, it must first determine if human remains were left behind after the city cemetery closed in 1872. Apparently, hundreds of people were buried in the cemetery grounds framed by Lincoln Avenue and Louisa, Helen and George streets, but records only document 321 removals and re-interments at Springdale Cemetery.
State law requires the removal of all human remains discovered in a construction zone and that there be a subsequent attempt at identifying them. If no identification is possible, the remains are placed in boxes and sent to Springfield, where they are stored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The library is responsible only for the remains beneath the footprint of its addition, not the rest of the property. On Tuesday, Anderson was considering changing plans and leaving parking for the new addition at the current parking lot.
"That way we wouldn't have to dig underneath the current parking area," he said.
A team of seven archaeologists and a biological anthropologist from the Midwest Archaeological Research Services were at work at 7 a.m. Tuesday. They were expected to continue their work 10 hours a day, Monday through Thursday, perhaps for the next several weeks, depending on what is found in the ground.
It's meticulous work.
"The process is in place to protect the dignity of each individual and to tell the community that we've done everything we can do to make an identification," said Anne Grauer, a biological anthropologist and professor at Loyola University of Chicago. "You can do it cheaper, but then you lose the humanity."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or at email@example.com.