Norwich - A research project to study dozens of Colonial and early 19th century gravestones in the cellar of Christ Episcopal Church halted abruptly earlier this month when historian David Oat spotted what he thought could be a human finger bone in the dirt near a pile of gravestones.
Church history says the gravestones were removed from the old cemetery, and the bodies of church founders and their descendents placed in a mass grave at the side of what was to be the new church built in 1846 on lower Washington Street.
The gravestones were placed in the foundation basement of the new church and remained there, in stacks and piles, partially covered by loose dirt, some broken, others in beautiful condition for the past 1½ centuries. Oat started his research project in June to document the stones and match them with church written records.
Oat immediately stopped work when he saw the small bone and called state Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni to determine if he was indeed working atop a portion of the former churchyard cemetery.
Bellantoni's investigation was delayed because the archaeologist was busy in New Haven. Bellantoni and Oat met Aug. 12 for a thorough examination of the dirt in the lower level cellar at Norwich's Christ Church. Bellantoni left the bone in the dirt, but took photographs and measurements.
"It's a third metacarpal, a palm bone in the middle digit of the hand," Bellantoni said Tuesday after completing his report. "It is human."
But in his study of the entire fieldstone foundation, dirt floor lower level basement area where Oat is working, Bellantoni found no evidence of coffins, coffin hinges or nails, other bones or funiary objects.
Bellantoni speculated that the hand bone became separated and deposited in this portion of the cellar in all the disruptions when the bodies were moved in 1846 at Christ Church.
"It's not terribly uncommon," Bellantoni said for churches to move or remove old churchyards to build a new church or for other urban development.
Bellantoni gave Oat clearance to resume his gravestone research this week - the archaeologist called the wonderfully preserved colonial stones "marvelous" - and sent his written report to Oat and church officials Tuesday. He left it up to church officials how to reinter the bone, suggesting that it could be buried where bodies are known to be located in a separate basement area beneath the altar.
Bones have been found in the past beneath the altar area. The church was built into a hillside and has basements at two distinct levels with separate entrances. Several years ago, church property warden Stanley Stanley was working on the gas furnace in the dirt basement when he felt a poke in the back. He reached around and pulled out a human femur and then a rib bone.
Stanley brought them to the Rev. Scott Hankins, who wrapped them in plastic, blessed the bones and reburied them in the same area.
Church administrative assistant Penny Barone said she received Bellantoni's report Tuesday and would forward it to the Rev. Dr. Michele Matott, interim rector at the church, and to church members for a decision on the reburial.
On Wednesday morning, Oat picked up the bone, placed it in a plastic bag and turned it over to Barone and went "back to my office" to continue documenting gravestones.
Oat said he doesn't expect to find any more bones. Working amid so many gravestones and with bodies nearby doesn't faze the historian.
A large slate stone done by Newport, R.I., carver John Stevens captured his interest. The winged angel at the top had a sad expression. Elaborate borders were carved down each side. "In Memory of George, y son of Thomas & Anne Griste who falling through the Ice was Drowned Decem y 13 1757 Aged 25 years & 7 Days."
Details of the carving are crisp and clear after 165 years of storage in the basement. The design, Oat said, is similar, perhaps nearly identical, to that of the famous gravestone in the Norwichtown Cemetery of Hannah Arnold, Benedict Arnold's mother. But that stone is faded and barely legible after having been exposed to weather and industrial pollutants for some 250 years.
"It shows the diversity of where families came from to this area," Oat said. "No one here would have known about a carver in Newport unless they had family there."