Crews try to identify bones near blown-up levee

Charleston, Missouri (AP) July 2011

Missouri state archaeologists and natural-resource specialists are trying to identify possibly ancient bone fragments unearthed last month when a southeast Missouri levee was intentionally breached to relieve flooding along the Mississippi River near its confluence with the Ohio River.

It’s not clear if the discovery of the bones – possibly from ancient tribal communities – could delay plans to rebuild the Birds Point levee that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up May 2. The agency breached the levee in Mississippi County to relieve pressure on the floodwall in Cairo, Ill., sparing that Ohio River town from being flooded but inundating about 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland in the process.

The Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau reported that more than 143 bone fragments were found near the levee’s north end range from chips to jaw parts and a nearly complete femur.

“These were some very old bones, with very dark colors. That means that they’ve probably been there for quite some time,” said Mark Seesing, an area funeral director and embalmer who is part of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association’s disaster response team.

Seesing said his research found there was no cemetery near the site, leading to speculation that the fragments either were from an early Missouri homesteading family or from a native burial mound. Mississippi County Coroner Terry Parker said some pottery and other relics were found at the site, indicating the bone fragments came from a native tribal community.

It’s likely the force of the corps’ explosions disinterred the bones, Seesing said.

The Mississippi valleys around southeast Missouri are replete with burial mounds, from ancient civilizations to early white explorers to family plots. The Oklahoma-based Osage Nation American Indian tribe had deep roots in Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma by the mid-17th century. Victims of the Civil War also had been buried in the floodway.

It could take months to identify the remains and properly bury them, particularly if there are federal and tribal guidelines that must be followed.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced earlier this month that the corps was mobilizing its Memphis district to rebuild the three breach points in the levee to 51 feet, which is nearly a foot lower than it was when the corps blew parts of it up.

Jim Pogue, a regional Army Corps spokesman, could not say if the discovery of the bone fragments would slow the corps’ efforts to rebuild the levee.

“There are certainly mitigation efforts that will need to take place, but as to whether or not they can be done parallel with the work, I honestly don’t know,” Pogue said.

Judith Deel, archaeologist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ State Historic Preservation Office, is heading the effort to identify the bones, with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the corps and other state officials.