Possible artifacts unearthed County says only bones would halt development

July 15, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

When Kory Stoeckle found what appeared to be casket

handles near tombstones in the presumed black section of old St. Mary's Cemetery, she thought she had enough evidence to (( halt the development adjoining her backyard.

"I thought it would bring people to the black section" of the cemetery to do soil borings, she said, "but I was told [the discovery] would not hold up in a court of law."

Ms. Stoeckle and many of her neighbors on Pebble Beach Drive in Turf Valley Overlook contend that remains are buried throughout the 3.2-acres of woodland being developed in their community.

The county and property owner H. Allen Becker contend that the cemetery portions of the property are clearly defined. Mr. Becker is building two houses -- one with a sales price of $284,900, the other $294,900 -- on the parcel between the cemetery portions. The cemetery portions are at opposite ends of the property, reflecting what nearly everyone agrees was a segregated burial ground.

The cemetery was last used in 1941 and was virtually abandoned until residents formed the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society in 1990. The group researched church records and contacted descendants of family members and sought to preserve the cemetery.

When the bulldozing started clearing portions of the property in late June, society members appealed to the county and media for help. The county brought in an archaeologist to assure that no graves were being disturbed.

State's Attorney William R. Hymes did likewise. Mr. Hymes said he "walked every inch of the property" with a state archaeologist "to have him certify to me one way or another whether graves were present [in the not cemetery portion] or not."

There was no evidence of any graves in or near the area being developed, Mr. Hymes said. The archaeologist hired by the county has found nothing either.

Ms. Stoeckle is not surprised. She points to the two tear-shaped handles and one U-shaped handle she said she unearthed Friday and says, "If the archaeologist missed these three pieces, how much else did he miss?"

Ms. Stoeckle said she found the handles among bottles, jar covers, and pieces of broken glass in about four inches of earth that had been bulldozed near two tombstones at the edge of the property. The glass was further evidence of graves she said, since people probably used glass jars for grave flowers.

But Mr. Hymes said that the items were found in three to four inches of earth rather than four to six feet, where graves are dug.

"We have not authority until certain things happen," Mr. Hymes said. "It is a real problem for residents -- a highly emotional issue."

After county Public Works official Daniel W. Bennett accompanied Ms. Stoeckle to the spot where she found the items, he theorized that many items unearthed could have been dumped on the site five years ago when Turf Valley Overlook was developed.

Ms. Stoeckle said her theory is just as valid. Although she says some of the debris is recent, a state archaeologist has identified the handles as casket handles and suggested the jars may have been used to place flowers on graves, she said.

County officials "say that in order to stop we have to find bones," she said. "But the archaeologist told me the soil is so acidic that we're very unlikely to find any."

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