One swipe of the excavator bucket and there it was, a human skull.
The construction crew digging a trench at the Oregon Zoo on Aug. 15 stopped what it was doing. Zoo officials notified the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office. And in the weeks since, archaeologists have recovered the remains of nine unidentified people of western European descent, zoo officials said Friday.
Crews found not only skulls but also arm and leg bones, a full outline of a coffin and a nearly complete skeleton, said Jim Mitchell, zoo construction manager.
It’s believed the remains are from long-dead residents of Hillside Farm, Multnomah County’s old 160-acre poor farm and sanatorium for the mentally ill and those with infectious diseases.
The farm opened in 1868 and closed after members of Portland charities inspected it in 1910 and dubbed the crumbling building and its deplorable conditions disgraceful, Sharon Nesbit writes in The Oregon Encyclopedia. Their report spurred county commissioners to speed work on the Multnomah County Poor Farm at Edgefield, which opened in 1911 on the site where McMenamins Edgefield sits today.
Human remains also were discovered during construction of the Predators of the Serengeti exhibit at the zoo in 2008, zoo officials said Friday. Those remains were reburied near the spot they were found.
Officials hope to rebury the newly discovered remains and to erect a marker somewhere on zoo grounds.
Historical documents indicate there may have been three cemeteries on the southwest Portland hillsides that today hold the zoo, the World Forestry Center and Hoyt Arboretum. In addition to Hillside Farm residents, the cemeteries were used as potter’s fields, or burial grounds for unidentified or unclaimed bodies.
“Our priority,” said Heidi Rahn, “was to treat these remains with respect and ensure they received the utmost respect during the removal and future reburial.” Rahn directs the Better Zoo Program, which oversees construction projects paid for by 2008’s zoo bond.
The newest remains were found along what will be the zoo’s perimeter road. The area was disturbed during previous construction for utilities and an older road. Mitchell figures this time the crew building a stormwater retention system either dug a little deeper or they were paying closer attention than previous crews.
Given the site’s history, workers had been trained before the project started on what do if they uncovered any bones.
When they did, the zoo roped off the area and called in Archaeological Investigations Northwest, whose archaeologists painstakingly removed all the remains they could find near where the first skull was uncovered, Mitchell said. The work, according to the zoo, is mostly complete.
Mitchell said that while collection of remains cost $50,000 to $70,000, the process didn’t delay construction. So many projects — from the new Elephant Lands exhibit to stormwater improvements — are going on at the zoo that workers from Lease Crutcher Lewis, the general contractor, simply moved on to another project.
Among those bond-funded construction jobs is a new education center due to open in 2016. Ideally, Rahn said, it will include an educational display about Hillside Farm, so visitors “can learn more about who was here and we can respect the history of the site.”