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How The Ancients Honored The Dead: The McKees Rocks Mound

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Margaret J. Krauss
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90.5 WESA
The McKees Rocks burial mound used to sit atop the bluff overlooking the Ohio River.

Humans have lived in the region for close to 16,000 years. One of the few remaining vestiges of those early residents can be sought in McKees Rocks.

Mark McConaughy is a regional archeologist for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Historic Preservation. He stands on the edge of the Bottoms neighborhood with his back to the railroad tracks that skirt the Ohio River’s high embankment, looking past silos of asphalt aggregate and trucks driving in and out.   

"If you look real closely you can see where they’ve drilled through the rock to put in their dynamite and blast it out," he said. "That’s where the mound would have been."

He points up to the exposed rock of the bluff.

"There’s no mound left up there, at all."

During the Early Woodland period, beginning around 1100 B.C.E., a group called the Adena lived throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Primarily hunter-gatherers, the Adena also fished, and buried their dead in mounds like the one that used to overlook the Ohio, McConaughey said.   

"A lot of them probably were along the rivers," he said. "Because of the construction of steel mills and other industrial things along the Ohio and the [Monongahela], they’re long gone."

In 1896 Frank Gerrodette, the first director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, excavated two main burials in the Early Woodland portion of the 16-foot high mound, but left the other half untouched. The artifacts — human remains, pearl beads, conch shell beads, scapula awls — currently reside at the Research Center on Baum Boulevard.

Deborah Harding is Collection Manager of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. At the Research Center, she was in the process of moving the 1.5 million artifacts in her care to temporary homes so new compact shelving could be installed. She took off the gloves she'd been wearing to move Costa Rican pottery. Digging up the dead raises big questions: of mortality, religious practice and respect, she said; the McKees Rocks mound has a history of controversy that begins with Gerrodette.

"The story going in the bars in McKees Rocks was that he was digging up white people and all of a sudden, it wasn’t such a good deal anymore," she said.

Shortly thereafter Gerrodette quit or was fired. He gave up archeology and became a lawyer. In 2010 a few protesters petitioned to repatriate the mound’s human remains, but failed to follow the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which requires cultural affiliation be established before claiming remains or artifacts. So the McKees Rocks artifacts remain in Pittsburgh, classified as “culturally unidentifiable.”

It's important to study the area burial mounds because of what they reveal about the society in general, said McConaughey. 

"I think it’s the beginning of complex societies in the region," he said.

McConaughey believes the burials provide evidence of a stratified society, especially as more sites are discovered.

"We know a little bit more about these people, and it’s time to again try to synthesize some idea of how they’re living in general in this region," he said. 

Harding said investigating burial practices helps us learn about other societies as well as our own.

"We don’t know what comes after," she said. "We’re all looking for answers, which we’re not going to get. But you know, it’s something universal — everybody is born and everybody dies. So how you deal with it is always fascinating."

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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story missed a nuance to the NAGPRA review process. While proven cultural affiliation is preferred, claims on human remains may also be made if a person or group can justify aboriginal land claims.

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