Late in the summer of 1989 workers renovating a building in Augusta, Georgia found a large number of human bones buried in the earth of the basement floor. What they found was not evidence of mass murder but it was evidence of crime. Bodysnatching. From its construction in 1837 until 1912 the building had housed the Medical College of George where in spite of dissection being illegal in Georgia until 1887 and cadavers were impossible to acquire legally, but anatomy was still taught by dissecting human bodies. Possibly because disposing of the bodies was as dangerous as procuring them the cellar became the final resting place for many of the human subjects.
Robert Blakely was then teaching forensic anthropology at the University of Georgia in Augusta, hearing about the discovery he organized his students for hands on learning by performing an archeological “salvage” dig at the site. Almost eight years later “Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth- Century Medical Training”, the synthesis of what was learned out of that salvage dig, was published. Edited by Blakely and Harrington the book is a collection of twelve essays that examine the finds from as many different perspectives.
My interest in medical history brought me read to this very worthwhile book. My background is in history, not archeology, and the emphasis on explaining the research procedures on the more technical topics was a pleasant surprise for my techy nerdish side. I can’t say I understood everything about the spectrographic analysis of trace elements in the bones and how they relate to the diet the person had in life but I did understand the implications and the limitations of the findings. Reading this essay was also a humbling experience. My sophomore paper on nutrition on Jamaican plantations was not original but at least I didn’t make any major errors.
I was on firmer ground with the essay on the life and work of Grandison Harris, who the college purchased to procure bodies for the dissection tables and to insulate the professors and students from the legal consequences of discovery. Even here, in what could have been a simple biographical sketch the anthropological perspective was, for me, an interesting and fresh approach to biography.
This is the best example I know of interdisciplinary research being used to advance historical knowledge. I learned about medical and social history and this book showed me things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For instance there are procedures to identify the sex or race of a body by bones besides the cranium and pelvis but they depend on knowing either the sex or the race to determine the other. How do you sex a pile of disarticulated bones? Now I know.
I enjoyed this book, it was at times a challenge but one that J thought was worth the effort. It covers a very narrow object but it covers it very thoroughly. If you are interested in medical history or modern archeology I recommend you take a look at it.