Curry Blaha, Morton Shell Mound – Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum

I worked on two projects during my internship. First was The Morton Shell Mound in Iberia Parish, Louisiana where I organized and repaired storage boxes, and where I sorted, identified and tagged human skeletal remains. The second one was at Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery Project in Jackson, Mississippi where I transcribed patient intake and discharge records.

Morton Shell Mound- What we can learn from a midden

Since a midden is a trash heap, we are able to tell a lot about a culture by what they throw away.
Timeframe – radiocarbon dating from cemetery estimates use around 602 AD – 998 AD
Diet – Rangia cuneata, fish, alligator, bird, squash, grapes, persimmon and wild plum
Ceramic and lithic technology – “late” type ceramic sherds
Funerary practices – evidence of secondary interment, possible post-mortem disarticulation and cremation

Why is this important

FOR ME: It was an opportunity to apply my knowledge and skills to an anthropological project. I used my knowledge of osteology, bioarchaeology and paleoanthropology daily: sorting fragments, identifying bones, and determining ante, peri or post mortem trauma. In addition, I learned how to care for archaeological findings: including proper packaging for storage, curation methods and database entry for research and inventory purposes.
FOR EVERYONE: To gain knowledge of native peoples including culture, history, population demographics, overall health, diseases or illnesses present, and any significant event that occurred. Due to the potential loss of site due to flooding/rise sea level as well as the possibility of sinkholes due to salt mining in the surrounding areas, excavation is imperative to preserve the remains of these ancient people.

Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery Project

There was underfunding, overcrowding and related issues beginning from when it was first built in the mid 1850’s up until the beginning of 1930.

The End of the Asylum
Due to the dilapidated nature of the asylum, a new facility named Whitfield was built in 1935 and the patients were all relocated. This facility is still in use today. After the new facility was built, the old asylum was demolished and the University of Mississippi Medial Center-Medical School was built on the grounds.

University Medical Center, Unmarked graves and expansion
In the 90’s, 44 unmarked graves were found while workers put in a steam line for a new UMC laundry.
In 2012, 66 pine coffins were unearthed during the construction of a new road on campus. This led to the State Archives and Mississippi State University getting involved. The Medical Center announced it would rebury the individuals in a small cemetery.
However, after more recent testing, they have been able to determine there are additionally around 6000 individuals buried in the surrounding area.

Dr. Herrmann and the Excavation
As assistant professor of anthropology at Mississippi State University at the time, Dr. Herrmann was involved in the excavation of the 66 coffins as well as the testing to locate additional burials.Under Dr. Herrmann’s guidance, the anthropology department at Mississippi State removed the remains for testing.
Dr. Herrmann said in one interview, it was valuable to gather as much information as possible and match the physical evidence with the records from the Department of Archives to learn more about the lives of Mississippians from the late 1800’s through the 1930’s.


In addition to the knowledge gained about Mississippi and the experience gained by the anthropology students at Mississippi State, the most important thing is that this allows the opportunity for families to get closure, many who never knew where their loved ones were buried.

During my research, I encountered numerous websites with families seeking information about their relatives, often with little more than the person’s name and the possibility they were admitted to the asylum. Due to the limited availability of data online, it is difficult to find out anything without going to Jackson, Mississippi and searching through the archives for answers. Working on this project exposed me to the cultural and historical aspect of anthropology along with the biological and has made the importance of research the field does ever so clear. Not only do I want to find out who these people are, I also want to help reconnect families with their lost loved ones.