The famed “Grave in the Road” has been one of Johnson County’s most unusual landmarks for more than 100 years.
But archaeologists studying the site have discovered it is even more fascinating and significant than they thought.
A team of University of Indianapolis researchers have discovered the remains of seven people at the grave of Nancy Kerlin Barnett. The remains were unearthed during an excavation of Barnett’s final resting place as part of a project to lower the grave in the middle of County Road 400S near Amity to protect it from traffic passing by.
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The bones found inside belong to three adults and four children, and though the archaeologists are still working to determine cause of death and other information, it means that the Grave in the Road will now be a Cemetery in the Road.
“The best part is that, at some level, we can let these people tell their own story,” said Christopher Schmidt, professor of archaeology at the University of Indianapolis and director of the Indiana Prehistory Laboratory. “We haven’t finished that part yet, so we don’t know what we have there. Looking at their teeth and looking at their skeletons, they’ll get the chance to have an input on how they’re described.”
Barnett died in 1831 and was buried in a small cemetery south of Amity. Her grave remained undisturbed for more than 100 years, when plans were made by the county to build a road through the area. All of the graves would have to be moved.
Local legend says that Barnett’s grandson sat near the stone with a shotgun to prevent her remains from being disturbed. So the road was built around it. County Road 400S wraps around the elevated grave with a black historical marker noting Barnett’s story. Rocks had been piled up as a barrier to protect it from being hit.
The grave has been disrupted by accidents at that location as well as by farm equipment scraping the site. Work started in May to ensure the gravesite was protected as well as making the area safer for drivers.
Schmidt and a team from the university started carefully exhuming the remains from the gravesite May 11.
Early in the process, they realized the site contained more than one set of remains.
“It’s always difficult trying to do history when so many things are based off family history and legends,” said David Pfeiffer, director of the Johnson County Museum of History. “Sometimes projects like this are the best way to find out what was there. According to everything we had researched and learned, all of the bodies had been moved. Turns out, there were six other bodies there.”
Six sets of intact remains were found laid out in two rows of three. The bones of the seventh individual had been collected at some point in the past, and someone had interred them in a small shovel pit, Schmidt said.
“We realized early on that we had at least two people,” he said. “Some of the small bones that were distributed in the gravesite come from a child, and some came from an adult. Then halfway through the dig, we hit the intact graves sequentially as time went on.”
Since then, they have been studying the materials taken from the grave, trying to learn what they can about cause of death and environmental factors.
“For us, we want to do all we can to understand the age and sex of each individual to see if they match up with what the history records are saying. Do we have a middle-adult female? Do we have kids who are of the age when (Barnett’s) kids are believed to have passed away?
Two of the intact graves had been damaged by someone or something digging into the mound at some point in the past. They don’t know for what reason yet, Schmidt said.
While the University of Indianapolis team are referring to the site as Barnett’s grave, they are unsure which of the remains are physically hers.
“The truth is, we don’t know if we can positively identify her,” Schmidt said. “We do have an individual who is a female, found near where the headstone was. She’s the right age. But I’d be overstating things to say that yes, we can confirm it’s her.”
One of the mysteries of the excavation is that the gravesite contains the remains of two adult females. Assuming one is Barnett, researchers are still trying to figure out who the other woman is, Schmidt said.
The identity of the bones of the adult male buried in the small pit is also unknown. Barnett’s husband is believed to have been lost on the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, but the remains of this male match up perfectly with the age of her husband.
“Is it him? We’re working on seeing if he’s a candidate for these remains,” Schmidt said. “We’ll do all we can to see if we can match these people to historical records.”
The difficulty with identifying all the remains is that county officials have little to no records to use to determine who they are, Johnson County Commissioner Brian Baird said.
So, the county decided to do DNA testing to find out. At least two living relatives of Barnett will submit their DNA, and it will be tested against the remains in the grave. The thought is that those buried there are likely relatives of Barnett, so the DNA should match, Baird said.
But it’s also possible that the testing won’t provide any answers, either because it doesn’t match or because the bones are too old to get a sample, he said.
“I just hope that we get answers,” Baird said.
The testing is expected to cost about $6,000, which the county has approved paying for, Baird said.
“We didn’t know what we were going to find. I didn’t think we would find that many remains that were intact,” he said. “But bottom line is, we committed to do the job and to do the best we could, and that’s what we did.”
The University of Indianapolis team is currently studying the bones, a process that will take the next few weeks, Schmidt said. Once that is finished, the bones will be prepared for reburial and then will return to the gravesite.
“It’s an interesting little historical mystery to follow,” Pfeiffer said. “We always want to keep learning more.”
The county is now planning to create separate areas in the median for the remains, so each person has their own burial space, Baird said.
“I looked at it as if that was my relative, if that was my grandmother, what would I do? And that’s the way we handled it,” he said.
— Daily Journal staff writer Annie Goeller contributed to this story.