SALT LAKE CITY — A homeowner renovating his home was surprised to find human bones in the basement ceiling.
Wednesday, May 1, a homeowner on the 2700 block of Alden Street in Salt Lake City was removing a closet from the basement when a bag containing human remains fell from the ceiling, Salt Lake City Police Department Det. Dennis McGowan said.
The homeowner called police, and crime lab officers assessed them on scene before transporting them to the medical examiner's office. The bones, McGowan said, appeared "to be very, very old." Police did not indicate any foul play had occurred, or how the bones ended up in the ceiling.
"(They) use the best of their knowledge and experience to figure out what to do with them and how to collect them professionally without damaging them, being as careful as possible," McGowan said. "And they are, of course, the experts in gathering evidence like that. So naturally they were very careful when they did so."
From there, the medical examiner's office transferred custody of the remains to the Department of Heritage and Arts' antiquities department to identify them as Native American or anglo-saxon and repatriate them appropriately.
The location of the remains also tells a story. Not just the bones themselves, but where the bones are located, that gives the archaeology a sense of placement, and how the body is placed may tell the story of how it wound up there.
–Geoffrey Fattah, Department of Heritage and Arts
"We put them through a process of close study to determine, one, how old they are, and two, their gender, and then we determine their cultural affiliation," said Geoffrey Fattah, public information officer for the department. "If it's a little more recent, we try to determine if they are culturally affiliated with any tribe that exists or have descendants of modern tribes."
The remains have not yet been identified or dated. Fattah said it will be some time before they are, as the department has other remains to analyze. Out of respect for the dead, they will not publicly discuss the remains further, he said.
Fattah also said that Native Americans consider the remains of their dead sacred, and recently published photos of the remains are viewed as inappropriate and disrespectful by the tribes.
Both Fattah and McGowan said the homeowner acted properly by calling police immediately.
"Get the police involved as quickly as possible," McGowan said. "Just getting the police on board, letting them take a look at whatever is going on initially is always the most prudent course of action."
The homeowner's case was unique, in that most remains found and reported to the state are the result of excavating in the ground, not found within the walls of a home. In most cases, Fattah said, it is best to stop digging immediately.
"Some people will be digging in their backyards to put in a powerline or a water main and then they hit upon some bones," Fattah said. "What they should do is, once they discover those bones, they should stop digging and call the police department."
"The location of the remains also tells a story. Not just the bones themselves, but where the bones are located. That gives the archaeology a sense of placement, and how the body is placed may tell the story of how it wound up there."
The state's process, Fattah said, involves archaeologists and anthropologists as well as local tribal leaders in order to accurately and respectfully repatriate them.
Contributing: Dave Newlin
Video contributing: Andrew Adams
Top image: Associated Press photo