Charleston wouldn’t be Charleston if it didn’t have a buried history. But in this case, it might be a mystery.
An archaeologist confirmed Wednesday the discovery of two sets of human remains on the grounds of the Gaillard Auditorium construction site. For now, no one knows how old they are, their gender or who they might be.
What is known is that they were buried head-to-toe, indicating they could be part of a larger and more formal graveyard spread out around the performing arts center.
Bolstering that theory is the fact that both sets of remains are facing east, aligning with the Christian belief of positioning the dead so they can rise and receive the second coming of Christ.
The mystery is determining why and how the remains were left buried in a part of the city which, according to records, was covered by residences and neighborhoods as far back as 1852.
The first of the graves was discovered late Monday when a worker using a track hoe earth-moving machine was digging a trench for a stormwater pipe near George and Anson streets.
As the dirt was being removed to about 6 feet down, other members of the work crew saw the scoop bucket hit what appeared to be an exposed human skull.
“All these years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never found a body before,” said Donald Lyles, of Charleston, the track hoe operator who has more than 20 years in the construction business.
Work stopped as the city called in police and the county coroner. But with no evidence of a crime, their involvement soon dropped off. Now leading the investigation is Eric Poplin, a senior archaeologist at Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting in Mount Pleasant.
So far only a few human bones have been confirmed, he said at the site Wednesday. No headstones have been found or nails or other grave-related artifacts.
“One is well-defined, the other is poorly defined,” Poplin said of the graves, adding it appears the “poorer” of the two grave shows signs of a previous intrusion, but during an undetermined time period. The Gaillard was built in the late 1960s, so the site has been covered for decades.
Charleston has a history of finding graves left behind and buried under more recent construction. The largest example was hundreds of graves, likely including the remains of civilians and sailors, found beneath The Citadel’s football stadium.
Their bones and personal possessions were removed beginning in 2004 to make way for the new west-side stands at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Confederate dead, including members of the submarine H.L. Hunley’s first crew, were found at The Citadel site as well.
Why the graves are at the Gaillard could take some sleuthing. Research could determine whether the graves were supposed to have been moved, or if they were just forgotten.
An 1852 city map of the area shows “every lot has a house built on it,” Poplin said. One theory is that they might be connected to any churches nearby.
Poplin’s suspicion is that there are more graves to be found in addition to the current two. A side-by-side positioning might be indicative of a small plot, he said, but head-to-toe probably indicates a pattern.
“It’s suggesting you have rows of people,” Poplin said.
Plans for further excavation are on hold while further research on the site is done, Poplin said. In the meantime, work on the rest of the $142 million Gaillard makeover is continuing while city staff members determine how to proceed facing the possibility of finding more sets of remains.
City officials also warned that the area has security, and they don’t want treasure hunters coming in after hours.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.
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