The discovery of a human jawbone in the Renton Highlands last Thursday may go down as an historical mystery.
It’s likely the remains are several decades old, perhaps even dating back to the early years of the 1900s when that part of Renton was very rural.
An archaeologist will do the sleuthing to try to determine who was laid to rest the many decades ago. Up until the early 1940s, it was legal to bury someone in the yard.
The jawbone was discovered earlier this month by Renton builder Jim Jacques, who was digging a utility ditch alongside one of three new homes he’s building on Edmonds Avenue Northeast in the Highlands.
At the time, Jacques figured it was an animal bone and set it aside. “I didn’t give it much thought,” he said last week.
Several days later, a contractor at the site noticed the bone and thought it appeared human. Renton Police were called, along with a forensic anthropologist with the King County Medical Examiner’s
At first, police didn’t know whether they were dealing with a possible crime scene. They, along with anthropologist Kathy Taylor, sifted through the dirt in the hole last Thursday where the original bone was found.
Yellow police tape surrounded the work area.
More human bones were found, along with what appeared to be a metal piece of a coffin. Soon, police and Taylor realized they were dealing with a burial site and not a crime scene.
“It’s not a police matter,” said Renton Police Commander Floyd Eldridge, who oversees the department’s investigations unit.
However, there is still the requirement that an effort be made to identify the remains and provide for a proper reburial.
Photos were taken Thursday of the metal and bones and e-mailed to the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation. The agency determined that the metal pieces from the casket likely dating from roughly 1910 to the early 1940s, according to Penny Bartley, a spokeswoman for the Renton Police Department.
Such burials didn’t require a permit, Bartley said, so it’s unlikely there’s any public record to shed light on who’s buried there.
“It’s an historical mystery,” Bartley said.
The home was built in the early 1940s and was torn down to make way for the new houses. Perhaps someone who lived in that old house or a long-time neighbor will remember a story of someone buried in the yard.
“Unless someone is able to tell us who was buried there, we will probably never know,” said Bartley.
An owner of the house died in the mid-1990s and after her death, her heirs rented the house. Jacques purchased the property from a private trust.
Because no crime was committed, the Police Department will do no further investigation. However, Jacques, the builder, will hire the archaeologist who likely will trace the ownership of the property and try to determine the identity of the remains.
Jacques also likely will be responsible for bearing the cost of reburying the remains, in consultation with the state. He’ll meet with the archaeologist this week, he said.
Jacques said he’ll be able to continue working on the houses, just not in the area where the remains were found. He said he’ll cordon off the area.
Taylor thinks it’s possible to identify the remains, but that will depend on the research that the anthropologist conducts. Because the bones are so fragmented, she can’t determine the age or gender. The teeth may contain DNA that would assist in identification.
By looking at the teeth, Taylor determined that the lower jawbone did not belong to a Native American. The wear on the teeth was light, indicating a modern wear pattern, she said.
Had the remains been those of a Native American, all excavation would have stopped and the state historical agency called in. The construction site would have become a “protected site,” she said.
This is the first time in her 20 years of forensic anthropology that she has found such old human remains in a suburban area.
“It’s certainly not common and certainly not in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” she said.
More typically, families would bury loved ones in rural areas, in a family graveyard, she said.
Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.