Archaeologists carefully brushed away dirt and small stones, looking for changes in the soil that could help them locate a nearly 185-year-old grave.
Where the dirt changed color, from a darker brown to lighter gray, that could be the final resting place of Nancy Kerlin Barnett. Anytime they located the boundary of the grave, a small orange flag marked the spot.
“We’re aware how unique these are, and how precious they are,” said Christopher Schmidt, professor of archaeology at the University of Indianapolis and director of the Indiana Prehistory Laboratory. “We want to go to great lengths to ensure these remains are treated respectfully from the moment they’re encountered in the field to the moment they’re returned to their place of origin.”
Story continues below gallery
Working with small tools and their hands, they were busy excavating Johnson County’s “Grave in the Road,” where Barnett was buried in 1831. A famous local landmark, the grave sits in the middle of County Road 400S near Amity while the roadway splits and wraps around it.
Archaeologists and the county highway department started work Wednesday on a project to protect the gravesite and make the road around it safer for drivers.
“It’s something so incredibly unique to Johnson County,” said David Pfeiffer, executive director of the Johnson County Museum of History. “She was one of the early pioneers of Johnson County. People recognize the importance of the history here, and that’s why we’re going to keep the grave here. She’ll go right back to where she wanted to be buried.”
Most of the work Wednesday morning was preparation and getting to the grave. A highway department excavator pulled back rocks and dirt that had been mounded around the grave to protect it from cars.
Once the ground closer to the grave was exposed, the team of archaeologists worked with their hands and small tools to more carefully approach Barnett’s remains.
“The thing I like most about this project is using our science to help with two practical matters: making the road safer, and protecting this grave,” Schmidt said. “Then there’s that added layer of public archaeology and getting a chance to investigate a person who lived here 200 years ago.”
When Barnett died in 1831, she was buried in a small cemetery south of Amity. Her grave remained undisturbed for more than 100 years.
But plans were made by the county to build a road through the area, and all of the graves would have to be moved.
To prevent her remains from being disturbed, Barnett’s grandson sat near the stone with a shotgun. He refused to leave and warned county employees to leave it alone, according to genealogy records at the Johnson County Museum of History.
His wishes were respected, and the road was built around it.
Barnett’s final resting place will remain in the middle of County Road 400S. But work had to be done to ensure the gravesite was protected, as well as making the area easier to traverse by drivers.
Currently, the site is mounded above the roadway, with a black historical marker designating its importance.
The grave has been disrupted by accidents at that location, as well as by farm equipment scraping the site. According to records from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, three accidents have occurred near the grave site since 2010.
The delicate work of handling Barnett’s remains will go to Schmidt. He and a team of six graduate students, as well as fellow University of Indianapolis professors Chris Moore and Leah Courtland, have mapped out a process of excavating the grave with the utmost care.
Ground-penetrating radar will be used to clarify where the remains, casket or other anomalies may be at the gravesite. From that point, the operation will be done entirely by hand, with archaeologists making sure they retain and record all of the materials that come from the grave.
“What makes this so important is it’s in the hearts of so many people,” Schmidt said. “Any time you’re involved with something people care about, you want to take that very seriously and be very careful with it, and be very diligent to make sure you do everything exactly right.”
County officials, as well as local and state historians, worked with Barnett’s relatives to make sure the process was respectful and done correctly.
“Honoring the wishes of the family, that’s the original reason the ‘Grave in the Road’ is there,” Pfeiffer said. “This is just a temporary move.”
Once the remains have been safely excavated, county highway workers will dig deeper into the ground, lowering the gravesite while also installing new curbing or a wall around the site.
The county pledged $10,000, including $1,000 from the county museum, to hire Schmidt to take care of the remains and move them to a temporary location at the University of Indianapolis. At the Indiana Prehistory Laboratory, Schmidt and his team will do a brief analysis of Barnett’s remains over the next two or three weeks.
While they will not do any DNA testing, the archaeologists will inspect the remains to gain a glimpse into what life was like for Barnett in the 1830s.
“We will let them tell the story. We let the bones talk,” Schmidt said. “We want to go at it with an open mind. We don’t know what to expect — is she going to be someone with a lot of signs of disease or hard work, or is it the exact opposite? It’s always a surprise when looking at ancient remains.”
The section of County Road 400S will be closed from County Road 700E to just beyond Sugar Creek for about a week. A sign at U.S. 31 warns drivers to find a detour. The road is expected to reopen Wednesday, as long as weather doesn’t delay the work, according to the county highway department. Motorists are advised to use County Road 650S while the road is under construction.
That didn’t stop some people from coming to see what was happening with the project.
Lee Collett had come to see the unique grave, and take pictures for the rest of the family. The Brown County resident had discovered through some genealogical digging that Barnett was a distant, distant cousin.
“We just found out about it two days ago, and I wanted to come see it,” he said.