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Montgomery, Ala. -- The city, which accidentally stumbled upon two mass graves during a construction project Tuesday, is still trying to determine the facts surrounding the 11 sets of human remains that were discovered.
Eight of the skeletal remains appear to be from the 1800s, but three are believed to be from 1977 or later.
The fate of the skeletal remains found in the two mass graves outside the edge of Oakwood Cemetery will depend on the age of the bones.
Authorities will now begin the process of dating the 11 sets of human remains found early Tuesday morning as city maintenance crews were preparing a site on city property for a new storage facility, according to city spokesman Michael Briddell.
"Right now, we've stopped construction," said Briddell, who added that the city is doing what it can to preserve the integrity of the site and dignity of those buried there.
Eight skulls were found at the bottom of a slope between the city's property on North Ripley Street and the historic Oakwood Cemetery. Preliminary analysis indicates that the owners of those bones could have fallen victim to a yellow fever outbreak in the 1870s, according to Briddell.
But there were three skulls found at the top of that hill that were buried after 1977, according to information relayed from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to city officials. A state scientist found a type of plastic with the remains that was not brought to America until 1977.
Homicide detectives with the Montgomery Police Department were called to the scene Tuesday morning but were dismissed once foul play was ruled out for both burial sites.
Once the remains were discovered Tuesday, no more digging was done, so it is possible that more human remains are at the site. The bodies were not in any type of container, such as a coffin, indicating that they were simply buried en masse.
City maintenance crews found the remains about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday as they leveled the dirt so that a foundation could be poured for a new metal storage building. The facility was being built on a site where three other maintenance buildings stood until last week when they were torn down.
Although there are as yet few explanations for the more modern remains, historians have a good idea about the others.
"Generally, when you have a mass grave, there's a reason you're putting more than one body in a single hole," said Rickie Brunner, archivist in the research room at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. "It will be interesting to find out what caused their death because that may date it."
A forensics test on the remains may determine if the yellow fever theory is true. But Brunner said it's plausible, since there were numerous yellow fever outbreaks from the mid-1800s to 1905.
Brunner said the Alabama River made Montgomery susceptible to the mosquito-born disease. The first steamboat to travel upstream from Mobile -- the steamboat revolutionized travel in the 19th century -- arrived in Montgomery in 1821, and steamboat traffic was common up until the 1930s.
The most severe outbreak of yellow fever in Montgomery was in 1873 when 500 cases were reported, with 108 of those people succumbing to the disease. Another breakout in 1897 infected 120 people, causing 11 deaths.
"People were scared. It seemed that there were so many cases at once," Brunner said.
Newspaper articles from the late 19th century reported that mule-driven wagons traveled through Montgomery to collect the dead bodies for mass burial, Briddell said. The bodies were buried quickly to reduce risk of the disease spreading further.
The remains that were found Tuesday lie about 40 feet away from the nearest grave in Oakwood Cemetery, but a wooden fence separates the site and the cemetery. The oldest nearby grave in Oakwood Cemetery was dated 1906, but the majority of the tombstones had dates ranging from 1918 to 2000.
Oakwood Cemetery, which was the city's first cemetery, now has as many as 20,000 unmarked graves in it. A small historical booklet, written by the Landmarks Foundation, mentions the possibility of unmarked graves on the city lot where the bones were found Tuesday.
"Unmarked graves are said to still exist near the city maintenance department building. As far as we know, no lasting records were kept as to these burials, probably because deaths were occurring so rapidly and because the relatives of many of the dead had no money," the booklet states.
If the bones found Tuesday are older than 75 years old, the Alabama Historical Commission will have jurisdiction over the remains, according to Communications Coordinator John Greene.
Any remains younger than that could become a public health department issue, according to Stephen Jones, archeology technician with the University of Alabama's Office of Archeological Research.
Jones said it could potentially become an "archeological issue" once the ages of the bones are determined. But because of the "ambiguous nature of the remains" found Tuesday, Jones said there "was not enough evidence there for me to say whether they are 50-year-old remains or 150-year-old remains."
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