FORT BENNING, Ga. — Utility workers installing an electric line under a parking lot on Main Post came across human remains last week and immediately alerted authorities, who believe them to be from an ancient American Indian burial ground dating back two or three millenniums, officials said.
Representatives from tribes in Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas — already at Fort Benning for scheduled consultation meetings with post leaders — joined historic preservation specialists at the Environmental Management Division’s Department of Cultural Resources for site excavation, sifting through dirt clumps for bones, artifacts and pottery fragments. The discovery was made Nov. 14.
Ted Isham, cultural preservation manager from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, said the tribes are sifting through the dirt piles to pinpoint an exact burial spot and screen for traces of any more remains. The goal is to find as much as possible and arrange for their ancestors to be repatriated and properly reinterred on Fort Benning, which has a facility at an unidentified location as part of its cooperative agreement.
“Breaking the surface of the earth and potentially disturbing the deceased is a very significant act for us, so we tend not to take it lightly. Our ancestors came from here,” Isham said Thursday. “There is great cooperation between the Indian nations and federal government, and we have a good relationship with Fort Benning. That allows this excavation work to be done in an efficient and expedient manner.
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“Nobody intentionally digs up a grave. But now, we can figure out how to mitigate the situation and give them a proper burial.”
He said two U.S. laws guide these reclamation efforts: the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which obligates installations or agencies to notify tribes whenever remains or artifacts are found on federal property; and the 1992 Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which covers anything that gets dug up.
The team uncovered burial plots for at least four individuals last week, Isham said. Major finds included a femur, tooth and gorget, a tribal neckpiece or necklace. The latter is in relatively pristine condition, indicating one person must have been a chief or individual of elite status.
He said early estimates by an archaeologist at the site put the remains at 2,000 or 3,000 years old, within the late Woodland to early Mississippian period.
“The gorget is a very significant piece,” said Robert Thrower, cultural director and tribal historic preservation officer with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from Atmore, Ala. “It let us know this was not your typical burial. He was a very important person. The odds of finding something like that was astronomical. It was in perfect condition.”
Thrower praised the collaboration at the dig and praised the utility workers who followed protocol by reporting it right away.
“This is how it’s supposed to work,” he said. “This is working consultation in progress.”
About 126,000 American Indian remains sit on shelves in museums, repositories and curation facilities around the United States — a significant number of them are in the Southeast, Isham said.
“There’s been a logjam, but once it’s broken, we’re going to have a pretty hectic pace,” he said. “The spirit of cooperation is going to allow a vast number of our ancestors to be reburied. We have 100 years worth of work ahead of us.”
Thrower said he’s a firm believer in fate, and it’s no coincidence the tribes were already on post before the discovery.
“There are some things in life that are meant to happen,” he said. “This was meant to happen.”