Excavations continue at Eastern State Hospital

By Jarrod Thacker

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Excavations are still in progress on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital, where a team of archaeologists are exhuming human remains of former patients from the 1840s to the 1860s.

ESH, located on West Fourth Street in Lexington, is the second oldest psychiatric facility in the country and is thought to have thousands of bodies buried in different locations near the hospital.

The Kentucky Archaeology Survey was commissioned by the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet to examine the ESH area, where construction for the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College construction will begin.

The KAS is a joint effort created by the UK Department of Anthropology and the Kentucky Heritage Council.

David Pollack, the KAS director and UK anthropology professor, said that KAS is working with the Finance Cabinet to document the historical aspects of the hospital before it is destroyed.

KAS has exhumed 115 human bodies so far, and they could possibly find between 20 to 30 more before the end of the project.

Once discovered, the remains are brought back to the KAS laboratory on Export Street, where they are cleaned and analyzed.

By examining the condition and fusions of the skeletal structure, archaeologists can determine the age, sex, health condition and lifestyle of the individual.

Archaeologists have located human remains in the 25 feet by 150 feet area by examining the composition of the soil once the topsoil was removed, with mixtures of soil being indicators of grave sites.

While the located remains have been found in both single and mass graves, Pollack said this is not simply careless work of the hospital.

“Everyone is buried in a coffin, carefully laid out,” Pollack said. “It’s not like a mass grave that you would think where they just threw (the bodies in). … They went into a lot of effort to bury them.”

The KAS team is comprised of both professional and academic archaeologists, some being UK faculty and students.

A. Gwynn Henderson, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at UK, serves as archaeologist and education coordinator with the KAS.

UK anthropology graduate students have been able to take part in the endeavor, as well undergraduates who have completed field courses, though they only work Wednesdays and Fridays.

Excavations at ESH began in late February, and the KAS team is nearly finished, Pollack said.

He estimates that with favorable weather conditions, they could potentially be finished with the excavation process in two weeks.