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Northeast Historical Archaeology

Abstract

In this paper we contextualize two unique individuals recovered from the historic Spring Street Presbyterian Church burial vaults in lower Manhattan (ca. 1820-1846). The crania of one adolescent and one infant display clear evidence of a craniotomy. Both had complete circumferential incisions to remove the calvarium for internal examination. Both crania were sectioned using a saw, though the adolescent underwent further postmortem preparation: thin scalpel marks indicate defleshing, and metal pins embedded in the frontal and occipital bones would have facilitated disarticulation and rearticulation of the vault, presumably for teaching. By the early 19th century, the illicit exhumation of graves to obtain cadavers for anatomical dissection was a widespread phenomenon and particularly prevalent in New York City. Though the bodies of criminals, the destitute, and the marginalized were often targeted, resurrectionists were opportunistic in their pursuits. Thus, the presence of two dissected crania in the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church leads us to question how these remains came to be interred alongside members of the Spring Street congregation. Such an inquiry will require a closer examination of the social-historical context of the church and its membership along with the physical evidence from the skeletal remains.

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