CofC preservation expert: 'We don't know where' many of city's dead are

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- When 37 sets of bones were discovered at the Gaillard Auditorium construction site, it got a lot of people wondering about the story behind them. Who were they? When were they buried? What caused their death?

It also has them wondering how many more remains could be resting unmarked around Charleston.

"I think this is a graveyard that simply got left behind as the city expanded," said Robert Russell, the director of historic preservation at the College of Charleston.

He also teaches cemetery conservation.

Russell says the 37 graves unearthed in the last few weeks come as no surprise. He said the remarkable thing is that they were uncovered again.

"There's a lot more of them. I'll say that," he said. "There are a lot of people who died in Carolina in the 17th century, from 1670 to 1712 or 1722, and we don't know where they are."

Graves have been found across the Charleston peninsula, but none date back as early as the Gaillard bones. Archaeologists found two coins last week that could date back as early as the late 1600s to the mid-1700s.

The lead archaeologist says those coins are still at the Gaillard site, but he plans to have them cleaned soon.

"I think living in Charleston is living in history any ways, and it's always unique when something special comes up because archaeologists are always finding something, whether its a Revolutionary relic or Civil War," said Eric Poplin. "So it's always interesting when they come up with something, but to be right on top of a cemetery is unique."

Russell is not connected to the research, but is a history buff. He says people can speculate why a gravesite was placed there, but time and research could reveal the truth.

"It could have been a potter's field. Potter's fields are public burial grounds for the poor, for people who have nobody," he said. "You could say they recently arrived, they didn't have anything in relation to friends in the colony. They died and were buried and then forgotten."

For now, every discovery shows history is still very much alive in Charleston.

Forensic testing will be done on the bones. The city says as far as burial of the remains, the details are still being worked out and a decision will ultimately come from city council.