UConn doctoral students help excavate remains of potential Revolutionary War soldiers 


Two UConn doctoral students, Elic Weitzel and Megan Willison, were able to assist Bellantoni and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History on the excavation of the bones.   Photo courtesy of    @donnehhhh    from Unsplash.com

Two UConn doctoral students, Elic Weitzel and Megan Willison, were able to assist Bellantoni and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History on the excavation of the bones.

Photo courtesy of @donnehhhh from Unsplash.com

They wanted a finished basement, but instead a Ridgefield, Conn. homeowner got an investigation into Revolutionary War era bones that were buried beneath their home.  

In the process of renovation, the construction company found human remains under their home and called the Ridgefield Police Department. Once it was determined the bones were old and not tied to a crime by the chief medical examiner’s office, the state archeologist was called in – as is required by state law.  

“This happens more frequently than you can imagine because most of these burial grounds, we don’t know where everyone is buried anymore,” State archeologist Nick Bellantoni said. “Not everybody got a nice clean tombstone. Farmers, especially in Eastern Connecticut, buried their dead in their backyards.” 

As a result, two UConn doctoral students, Elic Weitzel and Megan Willison, were able to assist Bellantoni and the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History on the excavation of the bones. Once the initial set of remains was found, the team kept digging and uncovered four total bodies who may have been soldiers for either the British or the United States. 

“I was able to learn some new excavation techniques as they involved skeletal remains and got to witness, on the days I was at the site, some of the aspects that are involved in overseeing such a significant project,” Willison, a sixth year doctoral student, said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m very thankful that I got to be a part of it.” 

Bellantoni, an adjunct anthropology professor at UConn, was called down to the site to investigate further. At the same time, Weitzel said he found out about the site from his local ties to the area and called Bellantoni, excited about the potential for the site. 

“I have happened to spend a lot of time in Ridgefield, so I approached him and volunteered my time if he needed any assistance, I’d be happy to go out to Ridgefield and help with these burials,” Weitzel said. “It sounded really exciting to me to hear that there were potential Revolutionary War soldiers discovered in a town that I had spent a lot of time in.” 

The students were able help Bellantoni and the Friends of the State Archeologist (FOSA) uncover the four bodies as well as about 35 buttons from the clothing of the soldiers. They are hoping the buttons, once cleaned off all debris, can point to what military force or unit the bodies belonged to.  

Now that the bodies have been completely removed from the site, they are going to be analyzed by a team of forensic experts from different parts of the state, according to Bellantoni.  

“We worked in a very deliberate, controlled way to record everything that comes out and make sure we recover every single bone fragment as much as possible,” Bellantoni said. “This was a very difficult excavation because of the fact that the soil matrix was a real clay, hard-packed loam and the bone was fragile.” 

In order to remove the bones, the team had to use bamboo and wooden tools so that the old bone would not be altered or scratched by the traditional metal hand tools typically used in archeological excavations, according to Weitzel. 

 “The soils we were digging in were pretty hard. They were clay rich sediments that made the digging pretty difficult,” Weitzel said. “That stuff adheres to the bones and you need to pick it off of the bones very carefully, as much as you can. These bones are not in the best condition because they’ve been in the ground for two centuries. So, we were using bamboo tools and wooden tools like shishkabob skewers and pieces of wood that were sharpened and cut.” 

Once the bodies are identified, Bellantoni says the team will try to track their lineage or any living relatives. They are also going to be reburied with a full military funeral, should it be found they died in battle, according to UConn Today. 

“We are here to treat these in an appropriate manner and see that the science is done, the history is done and they are reburied,” Bellantoni said.  

Another piece of this is the community reaction, according to Weitzel and Bellantoni. The Ridgefield community was buzzing about these findings.  

The Battle of Ridgefield, which took place in town in 1777, is a major point of pride for citizens of the town, according to Weitzel. It was also the only non-coastal battle fought in Connecticut during the Revolutionary War. 

Despite a loss for the hometown team in the Patriots, local residents at the time started to join up with the movement in droves, forcing British forces to the coast. There is also a musket ball still lodged in the siding of a building called the Keeler Tavern Museum.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @mbriney from Unsplash.com.

Mike Mavredakis is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at michael.quinn-mavredakis@uconn.edu. He tweets @mmavredakis

Leave a Reply