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Skull believed to be that of 19th-century girl

Archaelogical team to study construction site to see if more bones are buried there

Archaelogical team to study construction site to see if more bones are buried there

July 09, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Doug Owsley, a nationally known forensic anthropologist who is said to have handled more than 10,000 human skeletons, has determined that a human skull found last week at a new school construction site in Jefferson County belongs to a teenage black girl who might have died before the Civil War.

Jefferson County Sheriff Robert "Bobby" Shirley and Detective Tracy Edwards made the announcement Thursday morning at a press conference.

"This is what we're being told by forensic experts," Shirley said. "This is still a preliminary investigation."

The skull, believed to be that of a 13- or 14-year-old girl, was found by a construction worker at the site off Job Corps Road.

According to Shirley, heavy rains made the soil around a ditch soft and soggy. It is believed the skull fell into the ditch when some of the sides began caving in as workers were trying to backfill it.

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When a worker saw what he thought to be a rock fall into the ditch, he went in to remove it. He was shocked to learn he was holding a human skull, the sheriff said.

A state medical examiner in Jefferson County referred the skull to the state medical examiner's office. A forensic dentist examined the skull but could not identify its age or gender.

Shirley said investigators didn't know if the skull was buried before or after the Civil War or if the construction disturbed an old farm or Indian burial ground.

"We were checking for missing persons, too," he said. "We also looked for more bones. We could speculate forever how the skull got there."

He said the skull showed some damage that might have been caused by blasting and construction at the site.

"We're trying to determine the cause of death," Shirley said. "In one way, I'm glad that it isn't a recent death, but I am concerned that an old burial ground might have been disturbed."

An archeological survey of the 15-acre school construction site before the bulldozers began moving dirt produced shards of ceramic and stone tableware, Edwards said.

The next step in the investigation is to have the site checked again by an archeological team to identify more clues and see if more bones are buried there.

The area where the skull was found is sectioned off with police tape. No construction will be allowed at the restricted area until archeologists finish their work.

Shirley said the investigation area is small compared to the overall building site and will not impede construction of the school, schedule to open in the fall of 2010.

Excavation was going on as usual on the rest of the site Thursday.

Owsley, a Smithsonian Institution forensic scientist, is the subject of the book, "No Bone Unturned." It was published in 2003 by Jeff Benedict, an investigative journalist.

Owsley is well-known among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys for testifying in court as an expert witness in the 23rd Judicial Circuit of Morgan, Jefferson and Berkeley counties, Jefferson County Judge David H. Sanders said.

Last year, Owsley addressed the West Virginia Court Reporters Association's annual meeting in Martinsburg, W.Va., at the association's invitation.

His lecture included "a slide show along with a couple of suitcases full of bones that he spread out on the table," Sanders said.

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