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Workers unearth skeletons in Highway 26 expansion

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Neil Johnson
July 19, 2013
FORT ATKINSON--When crews laying the roadbed for the Highway 26 expansion plowed up a set of human bones south of Forth Atkinson earlier this month, work in the area halted.
The state Department of Transportation cordoned off the area—a small remnant of a knoll being removed to make way for the highway's additional lanes—and brought in a team of state-hired archeologists.
They promptly found another set of human bones on the same spot.
Then another.
And another.
After a few weeks of digging, archeologists unearthed the remains of four human bodies in what likely was a burial plot from a small, early European-American settlement that could date back to the mid- to late 1800s, said Jennifer Haas, President of Great Lakes Archeological Research Center.
“They are all historic, likely early-ish Euro-American coffin burials,” Haas said.
Haas' firm is the archeological group the department of transportation hired to investigate the bone discovery and remove the remains for analysis—work that is standard procedure under state rules whenever a state road construction project disturbs an undocumented burial site.
Haas said the bones appear to be those of three adults and one young adult.
She said a state-required laboratory analysis of the bones and other burial items and an investigation of local history records over the next several weeks could help determine the age, sex and approximate timeline of when the unearthed bones were buried, and, potentially, who they were.
Haas' firm will have custody of the remains until the state reviews the firm's findings and decides where or how to re-inter them.
Right now, all Hass' archeologists have to go on are wooden coffin remnants, such as nails and hinges—and of course, bones, which Haas says were well preserved.
DOT officials said work crews initially found remains of a man buried in a long-rotted coffin in early July. They struck the remains while using earth-moving vehicles to grade a temporary access road near the former intersection of Pond Road and Highway 26. The spot is almost directly in the path of future northbound lanes of the highway.
Haas said her firm believes it's found all the remains in the knoll area, and it's finished fieldwork there. The small area remained fenced late this week, even as crews were laying the new roadbed with heavy machinery just to the north and south.
The discovery this month came after the department of transportation had spent years researching and probing the surrounding area for artifacts, potential Native American settlements or early European American grave sites.
In 2010, the department of transportation had hired the same firm, Great Lakes Archeological Research Center, for an artifact dig in a spot just a few hundred feet from where the human bones were discovered this month.
Archeologists in the artifact dig, which spanned more than two years, unearthed about 150,000 pre-Native American items, including spear points and pottery, according to officials. The dig unearthed no human remains, officials have said, yet researchers believe some of the artifacts found there could be 10,000 years old.
When it comes to the latest discovery—skeletons of early European-American settlers—department of transportation officials say it's not unforeseen.
Jim Becker, department of transportation archeology program manager, said the state comes across human remains “once or twice a year” during construction projects.
Sherman Banker, a compliance archeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, said it's not common for construction projects to unearth unknown burial sites with large numbers of graves, but he indicated that having a road project unearth four sets of bones is relatively unusual.
Haas said an independent archeologist in the 1980s did a substantial amount of work to locate a rumored cemetery near where the remains were found last month.
Documentation from that work, which is on file at the department of transportation, Haas said, gives speculation that a grave site from a European-American settlement somewhere in the vicinity of Pond Road had either been covered over during construction of the original Highway 26 or was further west of the area ultimately earmarked for the highway expansion.
It could be too early to tell, Haas said, whether crews have unearthed that long-rumored burial site or whether they found part of a more substantial group of graves that could potentially be located underneath the original Highway 26.
Earlier site testing in a swath around the highway expansion and extensive  archeological digs earlier unearthed no other inkling of human remains.
“I don't know. (Four sets of bones), that's all that was encountered this time with the construction. Their location was right on the edge of the road ditch. Could there have been more (gravesites) when the initial road went through? Possibly,” Haas said.
It's not clear how the department of transportation intends to handle road construction immediately near the newly discovered burial site. The discovery did not completely halt work on the Highway 26 project; in fact, the highway south of Fort Atkinson was under heavy construction this week.
The project will serve to ease local traffic issues and link communities from Watertown to Janesville via a four-lane highway and a system of local bypasses, officials say.
Mark Vesperman, a project manager for the department of transportation, said work is now at full tilt on the Fort Atkinson to Milton leg of the project.
He said that's good because work had been running behind schedule after heavy rains earlier this year.


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