Discoverer of Kennewick Man leading investigation of remains found in Renton

A key piece of evidence in solving the mystery of who is buried in a grave in the Highlands is about the size of a man’s wedding band. It’s a collar button, of a style dating from the early 1900s. A crew of five investigators painstakingly sifting through a narrow trench next to a new home’s foundation found the button, along with pieces of wool and leather, last Friday.

A key piece of evidence in solving the mystery of who is buried in a grave in the Highlands is about the size of a man’s wedding band.

It’s a collar button, of a style dating from the early 1900s. A crew of five investigators painstakingly sifting through a narrow trench next to a new home’s foundation found the button, along with pieces of wool and leather, last Friday.

And they found more bones, enough to determine that a slender young man in his late teens or very early 20s and likely born around 1900 was buried there. The digging yielded more metal pieces of his coffin, including a coffin handle.

And on Monday came a second startling discovery – the remains of a second person, an older woman. Her casket was buried right next to the young man’s, in the same grave.

The young man was probably buried in his Sunday best. His suit was made of wool or perhaps he was wrapped lovingly in a woolen blanket.

“Someone put a lot of money into the coffin,” said famed forensic anthropologist Dr. James Chatters. “That collar button said he was dressed in his Sunday best.”

And a well-to-do family possibly was more likely to report the death to authorities, increasing the chances a pubic record exists.

And there was a real prize: a nameplate from the second coffin.

“We’re hoping it’s the person inside,” said Chatters. “That was exciting.”

The nameplate was corroded, so words were not decipherable. But on Tuesday someone looking at the nameplate with fresh eyes came up with the answer. It said, “At Rest.” There was no name.

“Darnit,” said Chatters.

Chatters’ crew had returned to the site on Monday to complete its work.

They began discovering ornate pieces from a coffin that didn’t seem to fit with a young man’s. His team found too many neck bones for just one person. A pelvis bone and a jaw bone provided convincing evidence that a second person was buried alongside the young man.

Unknown is why they were buried in the same grave but in separate coffins. However, one possibility Chatters is considering is that they died in the flu epidemic of 1917 and were buried together.

Now, his team will continue the historical research that could yield some important clues about who owned the property.

Chatters is no stranger to traveling through the human timeline.

He identified the Kennewick Man, a paleo-American who lived around what is now Kennewick in Eastern Washington about 9,500 years ago. In that historic investigation in the mid to late 1990s, it was another small item, a stone spear-point, that led Chatters away from an initial belief that the skeleton was that of a settler.

With luck, the Highlands Man will offer a glimpse into his life and times, just like Kennewick Man did for his. Chatters will rely on something more modern – property records and maybe death records – to help identify the young man.

“There is an interesting story here,” said Jason Cooper, a cultural resource specialist who works with Chatters at AMEC Earth and Environmental in Kirkland. Cooper is doing much of the historical research – as well as doing his share of the sifting.

The goal is to gather all of the young man’s remains and give them a proper burial, hopefully under the watchful eye of his ancestors, if they can be located.

First, Chatters’ crew had to finish what Renton police and forensic anthropologist Kathy Taylor with the county Medical Examiner’s Office started about two weeks ago – find all of those remains. The initial police response determined that no crime had been committed, based on the age of coffin hardware found.

The mystery started in early May when Renton builder Jim Jacques was digging a utility trench with a backhoe next to a new house he’s building on Edmonds Avenue Northeast. He spotted what he thought was possibly an animal bone, then set it aside. Later, another contractor looked at the bone and thought it looked human.

Police were called and the construction site next to the house was treated as a crime scene. It isn’t, but Jacques was required as the property owner to hire an archaeologist in an attempt to collect all the remains and to, hopefully, identify them. Depending on what happens, he also may be required to pay the cost for reburial.

Jacques was at the site on Monday, helping the crews sift for more evidence.

Human burials were allowed on personal property in King County until the early 1940s, when it was outlawed. It was a typical practice in rural areas, which describes Renton in the early 1900s. But Taylor and Chatters said it’s uncommon to find such gravesites in suburban areas today.

Last Friday, Chatters and his crew were emptying the utility trench, then sifting the dirt and rock carefully. The backhoe “got much of the grave,” Chatters said, and the team faced even more digging closer to Edmonds when bones were found farther away from the initial find.

There is a running conversation among the workers as artifacts are found and new possibilities arise. The work space is just a few feet, between the house’s foundation and the property to the north.

“It might be right there,” Chatters says, pointing to a particular spot. Only more digging would tell.

About four hours into the work, the crew had found about 40 bones, including part of the ribs, pelvis and face. They had pieces of the man’s body from the mid-thigh up, but not below that point.

Even with the evidence they had found, the physical details of the young man weren’t clear.

“You don’t want to look at it as a final answer,” Chatters said.

The final answer may not be known for weeks or months, if ever.

Another crew member, Jeff Michel, an archaeological technician, calls for Chatters to look at his latest discovery, near the house’s foundation. Michel hands him a handle for the coffin.

Some of the historical memory of that part of the Highlands rests with people like Paul Duke, who was born in downtown Renton at 208 Logan Ave. (his grandmother’s house) in 1935. He and his wife Nancy have lived in their house just behind the new homes for 48 years.

When they moved into their home in 1960, the street – Northeast 22nd Street – in front of their home was dirt. And, before it was Edmonds Avenue (its city-given name), the street went by its county name, 116th Avenue.

Duke’s uncle, John Duke, owned the land on which nearby McKnight Middle School now sits. As a child Paul Duke would come up the hill from downtown Renton to play in what was then orchards, mostly apples and apricots. The family would hunt.

He got lost once when he was 6 years old, but he’s pretty certain a big farmhouse that’s just north of the dig site was there then. It was. According to county property records, that historic home just north of where Chatters is working and the one house next to it were built in the mid 1920s.

Those dates would mean the young man likely was buried before the homes were built, Chatters said.

The Dukes believe that the house that was torn down to make way for builder Jacques’ new house was originally an outbuilding for a big farmhouse and had been added to perhaps three times.

It may seem “pretty odd” to bury someone at home, Paul Duke said, but that’s the way it was in King County for about half of the 20th century and in other parts of the country, too.

How to help

Anyone with relevant information about the history of the property in the 2200 block of Edmonds Avenue Northeast from the first half of the 1900s can call Jason Cooper, a cultural resource specialist, with AMEC Earth and Environmental Services in Kirkland. The phone number is 425-820-4669.