When a group of construction workers in Queens started their day at the site, they were far from expecting to find a 160-year-old mummy under their bulldozer. The astonishing discovery, found in an iron coffin, has ignited a fascinating scientific investigation.
A discovery worthy of a novel
In 2011, a group of workers discovered a morbid object on a construction site. The body had a strange appearance, dark skin and frizzy hair, dressed in a dirt-stained coat that had been exposed to moisture. The police initially believed that the remains were those of a recently shot victim, but a medical analysis quickly revealed a much stranger – and older – story.
Fragments of metal found near the construction site belonged to the luxurious carved metal coffin, made to correspond to the shape of the victim. The specificities of this type of object being only produced during a brief period in the 19th century, archaeologists were able to deduce, with the help of the deceased's funerary dress, that the victim died in the mid-1800s.
One man in particular was fascinated by this discovery. Scott Warnasch, a forensic archaeologist, had developed a passion for these coffins after discovering them a few years prior in New Jersey. ‘I've been obsessed with these iron coffins since 2005,’ he says. ‘I told the team 'It's not a crime scene, it's historic'’.
After careful inspection of the site, it was revealed that the coffin had been broken by one of the construction machines, after which it had dragged the body into the ground. While inspecting the body, Warnasch and the team revealed the remains belonged to an African-American woman dressed in a 19th century nightgown, a wool hat and long, thick socks.
Following the footsteps of Martha Peterson
Thanks to several methods of non-invasive imagery, researchers were able to establish a biological profile of the mysterious victim. The young woman was between 25 and 30 at the time of her death and would have measured 1m57. Her skin, perfectly preserved, revealed marks of smallpox on her forehead and chest.
The original site of this centuries-old uncovering would have been the establishment of a religious building founded by the first generation of free African-Americans : a church built in 1828 and a cemetery, built 10 years later. Thanks to the archives, the researchers were able to connect their mummy to a certain Martha Peterson, who died at 26 and was carefully buried by her community.
‘Although her smallpox was contagious [and potentially deadly], they washed her, dressed her, combed her hair,’ says Warnasch, touched. According to him, the use of a luxurious coffin would have been one of a practical nature due to her illness. Indeed, it assured that the virus would be prevented from escaping the burial. However, new analyses seem to point to another explanation, ‘but I do not want to reveal too much for now,’ concludes Warnasch. A documentary about Martha Peterson is now available.