University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Kyle R. Stevens

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May 18, 2009 
Bona fide burials
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Photos by Kyle R. Stevens
Archaeology team archives poorhouse bones Click the image above to view a slide show about the UWM archaeology team charged with archiving bones from the Milwaukee County Almshouse cemetery.

When studying human remains, Emily Mueller doesn’t carry a high-powered weapon or travel to exotic locations like the anthropologists of Hollywood.

Instead, she spends her time bleaching bones.

Mueller, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, is a member of a team that is custodian of human remains that were removed from the Milwaukee County Almshouse and Poor Farm Cemetery, now the site of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

Archaeologists archive poorhouse bones Emily Mueller (left) works with a team member during the cataloging process.

The team of nine has been charged with the tedious task of cleaning and archiving the bones, which date from the late 1800s through 1923.

“What we’re doing downstairs here in Sabin Hall has nothing to do with the popular media,” says Mueller, who is also the project assistant.

The remains of more than 1,600 individuals that UWM received last year have already been inventoried once, but the team now faces the challenges of putting a name to each individual and also making sure the bones are clean and stored in appropriate containers, according to UWM Associate Scientist Patricia Richards.

“There is a listing of every person that was buried and there is a grave number, but there isn’t a way to link these, says Richards. “We know they are a mix of individuals who were either living out there or members of the community poor. The causes of death are unbelievable. Typhoid, measles and tuberculosis; there is even one in here that said death by justifiable homicide.”

On top of this, the remains were exposed to moisture before arriving at UWM, causing mold on some of the bones.

“Unfortunately, bleach is pretty corrosive but it will kill the mold,” says Mueller.

The team hopes to complete the process by this time next year. Then, a biological profile for each individual will be created, listing sex, age and cause of death. After the profiles are complete, scientific studies can be done on the past communities that immigrated to Milwaukee at the turn of the century, according to Richards.