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Workers stumbled upon human bones buried in the walls while working on renovations of the chapel's basement, college officials said yesterday. Harvard archaeologists will likely get the go-ahead to begin excavating the remains tomorrow.
"My first thought was, 'Oooohh, an old Harvard murder,'" said Associate Professor of Anthropology Carole A.S. Mandryk.
But Mandryk said she soon found that there was probably nothing sinister behind the bones, which are currently lodged in the basement's walls.
The remains were first discovered on the construction site by Rachel E. Sexton '00, an anthropology concentrator. When Sexton's teacher, Lecturer on Anthropology John P. Gerry, was told about the renovations, he asked her to oversee the work in case anything interesting turned up.
When workers broke through a wall, Sexton noticed the bones and asked Mandryk to identify them.
"They're definitely human bones," Mandryk said.
She also noticed several sawed-open skeletons, broken scientific glassware and test tubes strewn among the remains.
Sexton researched the building's history and discovered that it wasn't always a chapel. Between 1782 and 1850, part of the basement was used as an anatomy and dissection lecture hall for the Medical School.
"Some of the bones have metal pieces sticking out of them, as if someone was trying to construct a skeleton," Mandryk said.
Following a student-run excavation behind Wadsworth House earlier this year, anthropologists say the new discovery is an important piece in the puzzle of Harvard's early history.
"What's really neat about it is that there's been a lot of different little digs in Harvard Yard telling us about student life, but we never really found anything having to do with academics," Mandryk said.
But the remarkable find has brought with it some logistical problems. The renovations of the chapel basement--which will create a classroom and modify rehearsal space for choral groups, among other things--have been stalled since the discovery. And there's no telling when workers will be able to start again.
"I think it could be at least another two weeks," said Michael N. Lichten, director of the office of physical resources in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
"It depends on how long we have to wait and how long it takes them to work through the site and recover everything that was found," he said.
Associate Dean of Harvard College for Extracurricular Activities David P. Illingworth '71 said he does not expect the renovations to be finished for at least six weeks into the new term.
The renovations were originally planned to be complete by the time students return in the fall, Lichten said, but with the timetable pushed up possibly more than a month, singing groups may be scrambling for rehearsal and audition space at the beginning of the year.
Still, administrators said they are excited about what the formal excavation of the bones might turn up.
"I think once we get in there, it will be interesting to see why those things are there," Lichten said.
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