- Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training
In August 1989, workers refurbishing a building in Augusta, Georgia, found a cache of human bones, as well as bottles and other artifacts, under the basement floor. This was not surprising, since the 1835 structure was built as the Medical College of Georgia and housed the College’s gross pathology laboratory until 1912. Even so, such a large collection of human bones outside a cemetery is uncommon, and it quickly drew the attention of archaeologists. Robert Blakely of Georgia State University came to manage the dig and assembled an interdisciplinary team to make sense out of this jumble of material evidence.
Blakely understood the salience of race in this matter. In the South of slavery and segregation (and even during Reconstruction), teachers and students at the medical school would all have been white; a fair assumption (eventually borne out by the methods of physical anthropology) was that the bodies dissected in the building were disproportionately of black people; and it was known that the person most responsible for finding anatomical subjects was Grandison Harris, an African American who had been brought to the school as a slave and continued as a salaried employee after emancipation. Of course, evidences of racism—past and present, postmortem or otherwise—lurk on every floor of almost every [End Page 156] American institution, and not just in the basement of Southern medical schools. It is to the credit of Blakely and his team, though, that they undertook their work at the MCG building with the explicit intention of seeing what happened there refracted though the lens of race.
Unfortunately, their efforts have met with only mixed success. Regarding the racial dimension of the story, one might say that nothing unexpected was found and the subtitle of the book is overly sensationalist. What is most interesting about the chapter on assigning bones to racial categories is the hesitance of physical anthropologists to reify the social category we know as race into an essential biological quality, while still acknowledging that quantifiable characteristics of human bones do correlate to some extent with the perceived racial identity of living human beings. Other explicitly “racial” discussions—such as the chapter on Grandison Harris, or the attempt through ethnographic techniques to reconstitute the local African-American community’s understanding of what went on in the MCG building—either are amateurish or fail to illuminate the main story significantly.
From the point of view of medical historians this book is most successful in providing data, and also insights into the theoretical debates and methodologies of historical archaeology. The discussion of changing dissection techniques in chapter 5 stands out as a contribution to history made by the hands-on study of material objects. Other chapters that provide useful information to historians are those that analyze artifacts and reconstruct diet. No doubt more theoretically sophisticated discussions of processual and postprocessual archaeology exist elsewhere, but it is good for the historian struggling with issues of relativism to see how workers in a related field deal with similar problems while addressing topics pertinent to historical studies. And while the methodological particulars are sometimes presented in excruciating detail (see, for example, Harrington’s chapter on paleopathology), it can only benefit historians to see how historical archaeologists and physical anthropologists reach their conclusions.
Because all the essays it contains are based on one project, Bones in the Basement coheres more than many volumes of collected essays. This book represents an effort undertaken with the best intentions, and it deserves praise for the extent to which it succeeds at what it tries to accomplish.