Uncovering the Forgotten Through Skeletal Remains – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Uncovering the Forgotten Through Skeletal Remains

As part of the Spring Street Archeology Project, Meredith Berman Ellis ’04 has worked with a team of anthropologists and archaeologists to analyze the skeletal remains of nearly 193 bodies that were buried in vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in New York City between 1820 and 1843. Ellis, who began working on the project as a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University in 2007, has focused her research on the skeletal remains of the children uncovered at the abolitionist church to better understand the socio-historical context of the incredibly high rates of disease that caused their deaths.

“In general, our research has found that this congregation was a fascinating mix of people, from all over the state, the country, and even overseas, that came together in this working and middle class neighborhood to worship together and to fight slavery together,” Ellis explains. “They are the forgotten people of history-cartmen, preachers, poorhouse workers, laborers, mothers, fathers and children – and yet their bones can tell us so much about what it was like to live in New York City in the first half of the 19th century.”

The project began in 2006 when construction workers uncovered the remains of the individuals along with mortuary artifacts from burial vaults that had been paved over in 1966 when the church was demolished. The remains were sent to the bioarcheology laboratory at Syracuse University for further analysis.

When the remains first arrived in Syracuse in 2007, Ellis remembers having “no idea how big and important the project would turn out to be.” She worked for seven years to record the lives of those buried at the church, and is still involved in follow-up projects today.

Ellis’ research has focused on the remains of the children, finding that those buried at the church had high rates of rickets, vitamin D deficiency and scurvy. This has led Ellis to seek a better understanding  of the diseases in their social and historical contexts, asking questions about the role that diet played as well as the influence of race in the integrated abolitionist congregation.

“The impact of this research has been amazing,” Ellis says. “My work on childhood and disease is highlighting the way researchers can combine historical documentation and social relationships with skeletal data to understand the complexities of health. Our work reconstructing the lives of those at the church has been meaningful to descendants who have found us. This is why this work matters to me.”

The skeletal remains were reburied in 2014, at which time Ellis gave a eulogy commemorating the Spring Street Church, however work on the project is still underway. Ellis explains that she and several members of Syracuse University’s anthropology department have tracked down the names of more than 600 individuals recorded as buried at the church and are working to compare their recorded histories to the skeletal data from the recovered bodies.

Hoping to further the impact of her research, Ellis is adapting her Ph.D. dissertation, which won the Syracuse University All-University Doctoral Prize, into a book that deals with the questions regarding childhood disease that were the focal point of her research, as well as how to understand the social construct of childhood from the skeletal remains of the children themselves, she explains.

Ellis, who says the two things she loves most about her job are “teaching and storytelling,” was first inspired to pursue anthropology as an HWS student. “I am doing what I do today because of my time at the Colleges,” she says. Originally planning to pursue a career as an English teacher, Ellis began questioning her plans after taking “World Prehistory” with Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Ilene Nicholas. She graduated as a double major in English and anthropology, having taken all of Nicholas’ classes and completing an Honors project, “Burying the Past: A Creative and Analytical Look at the Cultural Repatriation Movement.”

“HWS and its interdisciplinary focus also influence how I do my work,” says Ellis. “I am in a field that can, at times, focus on the hard skeletal data rather than on a comprehensive view of a place and time.  But HWS taught me to draw on multiple disciplines and ideas in my work, so I regularly look to fields like history and literature to help fill in the picture of life at a site.” 

After graduating from HWS, Ellis earned her M.A. in English at the University of Rochester. Still looking to pursue anthropology, Nicholas connected Ellis with Shannon Novak, associate professor and graduate director of anthropology at Syracuse University, and the Spring Street project director. As a result of the connection, Ellis went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. with distinction in anthropology from Syracuse University. Last fall, she returned to HWS as an adjunct lecturer in the department of sociology and anthropology. Currently, she is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and at SUNY Cortland.

“I owe everything to HWS and to Dr. Nicholas,” she says. “Teaching students to think in an interdisciplinary way is a gift that just keeps on giving long after life at HWS.”

Above, Ellis gives a Eulogy at the memorial ceremony commemorating the Spring Street church after the skeletons were reburied in 2014.