Residents of Turf Valley Overlook in Howard County got the news they have been expecting yesterday -- human remains were unearthed on a wooded lot in their neighborhood.
"They found bones, just like we said they would," said Kathy Rebeck, referring to a yearlong controversy over an old cemetery that the Roman Catholic Church sold for development.
Ms. Rebeck, along with about 35 of her neighbors, has been fighting for more than a year to stop development of 3.2 acres of woodlands in the heart of her neighborhood.
The woodlands contain old St. Mary's Cemetery -- a racially segregated burial ground last used by the Roman Catholic Church in 1941. Blacks are buried in one corner and whites in another. Property owner H. Allen Becker is seeking to build several houses costing nearly $300,000 on the land between the two burial plots.
Yesterday's discovery came about 2:30 p.m. when a backhoe digging a water and sewer line unearthed several bones about 25 feet from a pair of half buried tombstones in the black portion of the cemetery. Construction work stopped immediately.
Richard Hughes, chief of the Maryland Office of Archaeology, said he could not tell whether the remains were those of more than one person. He said he was sending the remains to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to try to determine if the bones are indeed those of one or more black people.
Residents of the Howard County neighborhood, many of whom formed a group 18 months ago called Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society, have been contending for weeks that beneath the thick growth of poplar and walnut trees surrounding their homes are graves of children, slaves and people too poor to have headstones.
Mr. Hughes said he doubts any slaves have been buried there since the cemetery first was used in the late 1880s. Unless something of extraordinary significance is found, he said, he assumes the discovered remains will be reburied elsewhere and that development of the tract will continue.
"The indications are that this is confined to this one area," he said. "I'm 100 percent confident there are no remains where the
houses are being built."
But residents disagree. "I don't know how much more proof they need," said Sandra Pezzoli, a resident who has been helping to lead the fight to keep the cemetery intact.
"I called the [Baltimore Roman Catholic] diocesan attorneys and asked them if they had [burial] vaults ready" for reburial of bodies, she said. "They told me the didn't know, and I told them they better find out."
Howard County Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said his preference is for the digging to "stop this moment and see if we can't find a better tracking system" for discovering graves without disturbing them.
Meanwhile, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who went to the site with county State's Attorney William R. Hymes, public works officials and health inspectors yesterday, ordered the excavated hole filled to make it safe.
As Mr. Ecker spoke, archaeologists sifted through piles of dirt to determine if other remains were present. Mr. Ecker said the plan was for workers to start scraping small parts of the earth at a time and proceed from there. "If we find a grave, we will dig it by hand and scrape slowly down to about six feet," he said. "I'm concerned that whatever is found is handled appropriatedly and in accordance with the law. We're doing things to help, I hope, ease community tensions."
Tensions have been running so high that a Roman Catholic priest, who had been at the site to help allay fears, was shouted down when he reported an archaeologist's finding that no bones had been discovered where the houses were being built.
State's attorney Hymes, who along with the health department has final say about whether the project can proceed, said he will be looking to the archaeologists to advise him. "We should have their report within a week," he said, "and decide what to do."