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Stories from the Grave | Mysteries of the Deep | Trickle-Down Effect | Artifact Central
Stories from the Grave
Bioarchaeologist Shannon Novak is marrying physical and social science to capture the life stories of New York City church congregants who died well more than a century ago.
By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Bioarchaeologist Shannon Novak with the remains of one of the congregants who had been interred at Spring Street Presbyterian
Louisa Hunter was only 16 when she died, in 1825, from what her
brief obituary described only as "a long and painful illness."
Hunter lived in a community in transition - an area of Lower
Manhattan that in the early 1800s was mostly rural, and during
Hunter's short life was rapidly urbanizing and filling with
immigrants and African Americans recently freed from slavery.
Neighborhood residents worked at the docks along the Hudson River,
at a tannery and glue factory, and at small shops along Spring
Street. Hunter seems to have been part of an emerging middle class,
which was shifting away from home-based farm life and joining the
At the center of this diverse New York community was the Spring
Street Presbyterian Church, built in 1811 among fruit orchards.
Louisa Hunter and hundreds of others were buried in the church's
four underground vaults, mostly in unmarked coffins, up through
1843. In that period, the Spring Street church was a hotbed for
abolitionism and a stop on the Underground Railroad, and one of the
first churches in New York with a multiracial congregation and
Sunday school. The pastors' progressive politics caused such a stir
that the church was targeted and destroyed during the race riots of
Though the church was rebuilt and survived into the 20th
century, membership dwindled; and by the time the building burned
down in the 1960s, its history and community were largely
forgotten. A parking structure covered the site until 2006, when
construction workers digging the foundation for the Trump SoHo
tower unearthed human remains.
Today, the stories of Louisa Hunter and the Spring Street
congregation are finally coming to light thanks to the work of
Maxwell School bioarchaeologist Shannon Novak. All the contents of
the burial vaults have been relocated temporarily to Syracuse
University's physical anthropology lab, where Novak and a team of
researchers use cutting-edge techniques to draw remarkably precise
conclusions about people from the past - from where they grew up
and what they ate to how they died. Thanks to what remains of
Louisa Hunter and others buried in the Spring Street vaults, we
have a clear window into a pivotal period in 19th-century American
Shannon Novak is a bioarchaeologist, working in a subfield of
anthropology that blends biological, historical, and cultural
analysis. Part of her expertise lies in human osteology - the study
of bones - which helps her identify, for instance, markers of
disease on skeletal remains even centuries later. Through X-rays
and taking bone and teeth samples for molecular tests, Novak can
glean an extraordinary amount of additional information about how a
person lived - and even where his or her ancestors came from. Where
an osteologist might look at bones strictly as medical specimens,
Novak also considers the cultural context, through ethnographic
studies and archival research. Over the years she has used this
multifaceted approach to explore everything from the harsh
realities of medieval warfare in England to the decision making of
the Donner Party.
The details that emerge from close examination of skeletal
remains can be extremely subtle. During a tour of her lab in Lyman
Hall, where bones from the Spring Street vaults are arranged on
long lab tables, Novak shares one example, which she calls
seamstress notches - tiny notches in a woman's tooth that came from
pulling thread across it day after day. In other cases, the stories
revealed by the remains are much more dramatic.
“That’s the kind of thing we see with human remains that goes unappreciated by historical documents.”
"We have an individual with advanced prostate cancer, to the
point where it had metastasized in his legs," says Novak. "The
cancer was in the bone. That's interesting in its own right. But
we're also thinking about that individual, who would have been in a
lot of pain. What was it like for him to try to perform daily
activities? What was his life like? That's the kind of thing we see
with human remains that goes unappreciated by historical
Louisa Hunter is one of just a handful of people from the Spring
Street vaults who have been identified by name, thanks to the
engraving on her coffin plate and the few details in her obituary.
"Near where that coffin plate was found," says Novak, "we had a
young female about 15-and-a-half to 16-and-a-half years of age, and
she had lesions in her teeth that suggested she had a chronic
illness that would flare up. So that goes along with what her
obituary says about a 'long and painful illness.'" A pilot study of
carbon and nitrogen isotopes - drawn from collagen in Hunter's bone
- provides additional clues about her everyday life. "Her isotopes
suggest she may have had a diet that was moving toward more grains
and away from fish, possibly related to emerging class
differences," says Novak. DNA tests underway will soon reveal much
more about Hunter and others from the burial vaults, including a
"deep geographical ancestry" that may well point to people's roots
in both Europe and Africa.
Coffin plates from the Spring Street excavation
The kind of in-depth analysis and molecular testing of the
Spring Street collection that's in progress today nearly didn't
happen. The 46-story Trump SoHo, which towers over its surroundings
in Lower Manhattan, was controversial from the start; neighborhood
preservationists charged that the building violated zoning laws and
filed suit against the developers. When workers first discovered
the church vaults, and construction was halted to comply with
historic preservation laws, the cultural resource management firm
handling the excavation hired forensic anthropologist Tom Crist of
Utica College to perform the initial analysis - and he contacted
Shannon Novak for assistance. Given the high stakes in the
$450-million construction project, pressure was intense to quickly
complete the excavation and study.
In the absence of any known biological descendants of the Spring
Street congregation, the Presbytery of New York City, an umbrella
organization of Presbyterian churches, agreed to act as the "next
of kin" and take responsibility for reburial. But for nearly four
years the Trump SoHo developers retained control over the remains -
a highly unusual arrangement, according to Novak - and prohibited
any DNA analysis. It wasn't until 2011 that legal control shifted
to the Presbytery, which signed an agreement with SU to do a
comprehensive study and arranged for the contents of all the vaults
to be shipped to Syracuse.
When Novak began work on the project in 2007, what arrived at
her lab was mostly "thousands of commingled remains," she says.
"Some had been in bags and boxes in a warehouse growing mold." With
the help of SU archaeology students, Novak began the painstaking
work of screening dirt; removing and cleaning bones, teeth, and
hair as well as artifacts such as nails and coffin plates; and
documenting everything they found. Carefully sorting the bones,
Novak was able to match up the remains of a few individuals,
including the man with prostate cancer.
To complement the lab work by Novak and her students, Maxwell
colleagues have brought other kinds of expertise to the project.
Carol Faulkner, chair of the history department and a specialist in
19th-century America, provided background on the abolitionist
movement, and geographer Joseph Stoll created a map of the area
around Spring Street at the time of the burial vaults.
Others outside SU are contributing as well. Dr. Ralph Stevens, a
radiologist and history buff in Oneida, New York, performs X-rays
in his lab. For the isotope tests, Novak sends collagen samples to
Dr. Joan Brenner Coltrain at the University of Utah. DNA tests are
being conducted by genetic specialist Dr. Jodi Lynn Barta at
Michigan's Madonna University.
“We get these rather polarized views of the period, of the extremes. [This project] gives us a more diverse perspective on what life was like in the city.”
"My goal has been to allow Shannon and her team the time and
latitude to study these remains as they see fit," says David Pultz,
head of the Presbytery's Spring Street committee in New York City.
"The agreement allows them to do DNA testing and make all kinds of
determinations about the racial mix of the remains, and to give as
full an analysis as possible. That was important for us."
The process of screening, sorting, and analyzing the remains
continues today, with an end-of-the-year deadline looming. In 2013,
the Presbytery plans to rebury most of the remains, and Pultz's
committee is in the process of choosing a site in New York City. SU
will retain some bone and tooth samples that will also be reburied
probably within five years.
The significance of the Spring Street study lies in how it
illuminates day-to-day life in this transitional period in the 19th
century, among people whose stories are rarely told. The city's
poorest residents, and the tenements where they lived in notorious
neighborhoods like Five Points, were the subject of much attention
and propaganda at the time, and the elites were well documented in
the press. But the kinds of people in the fast-growing community
around Spring Street - cabinet makers, merchants, grocers, dock
workers, and many women and children working outside the home - are
mostly absent from the historical record.
"They just kind of fall under the radar," Novak says. "These are
everyday working folks, most of them. We get these rather polarized
views of the period, of the extremes." Studying the Spring Street
collection, she says, "gives us a more diverse perspective on what
life was like in the city."
What is clear from this research so far is that life in this
community was tough - especially for the children. Signs of
infectious disease are common, such as bulbs of enamel on a child's
teeth indicating congenital syphilis, or a layering on the ribs of
a young female with pulmonary tuberculosis. An extraordinarily
large number of children in the burial vaults - some 30 percent -
suffered from rickets, a disorder resulting from vitamin D
deficiency that leaves behind soft, weakened bones that, in the
extreme, look like coral. By comparison, Novak says, adults who'd
grown up in rural areas and moved to Lower Manhattan were much
healthier than the children of the industrializing city.
“Starting from the micro context of the Spring Street congregation, we can ask broader questions and understand their place in this nested history.”
As additional results come back from a pilot study of isotopes
and DNA, Novak is looking forward to learning much more about the
lives and times of the Spring Street congregation. Along with
Louisa Hunter, the teenager who died from a chronic illness, an
upper-class man named Rudolphus Bogart has been identified - and
his remains are slated for further study to reveal his story. DNA
testing should make it possible to match up the remains of pastor
Samuel H. Cox's wife, mother-in-law, and two of his children whose
names appear on a single coffin plate. And perhaps lab tests will
solve the mystery of Georgia senator Nicholas Ware, whose name also
appears on a Spring Street coffin plate even though other
historical accounts say he was buried at another location in New
York City. Novak is seeking funds for isotope and DNA tests on some
200 individuals who have yet to be profiled, so the project has
tremendous untapped potential.
David Pultz, of the Presbytery's Spring Street committee,
appreciates the larger historical significance of this work; in
fact, he hopes to make a documentary film about the church's
progressive activism and the race riots, and what they reveal about
19th-century New York. "The remains are like a time capsule that is
being unlocked by Shannon and her group," he says. Novak's research
not only sheds light on the individuals who were buried in the
vaults but "reveals more of a social history of the area," he
A section of pelvis evidencing prostate cancer (the darker patches at left) and (lower right) a tooth showing a “seamstress notch” along its top edge
"In the social sciences there are a number of ways of trying to
understand the past," Novak reflects. "I like to work in these
micro contexts, where you learn as much as you can about a
particular time, place, and community, where you can really get a
feel for people's lives. Then you can pull back and say,
okay, we have this case of an early multiracial congregation who
were radical abolitionists, really trying to change the country.
What can that tell us about the different dynamics in New York City
at the time? And then you can pull back from that context and ask
what does that tell us about broader regional and national history,
and even global history? So starting from the micro context of the
Spring Street congregation, we can ask broader questions and
understand their place in this nested history."
The power of Novak's work is that it begins to answer broad
historical questions not from theory or secondary sources but from
physical evidence - the clues to the past embedded in bone. These
clues can often lead to unexpected discoveries, like the adolescent
skull from Spring Street with saw and pin marks indicating it was
used as a medical-school teaching specimen; or the children whose
isotopes reveal that some were weaned fairly young while others
nursed until around age four - a sign, perhaps, of women's changing
roles in work outside the home.
"For me, historical bioarchaeology is this wonderful meeting ground
that allows historians to learn more than they could have from the
archives alone," Novak says. "By drawing on historical documents,
we too gain more robust insights into the past that we couldn't
access from just the bodies alone. So we feel very lucky."
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter.
Primary portrait and lab photography by Anthony Faulkner, who received a BA in anthropology in 2009 and an MS in forensic science in 2011 from Syracuse University.
This article appeared in the spring 2012 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2012 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail email@example.com.