This 2013 photo shows James Roncki, of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, examining one of 86 unmarked graves found on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Photo: University of Mississippi

Four years ago, teams doing some minor roadwork dug into the clay on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. They found 66 coffins buried from the former Mississippi State Asylum, which had operated for nearly a century before the modern hospital opened.

It was not the first such discovery: 44 unmarked graves came to light in the early 1990s, during some digging for a steam line for a laundry facility. At the time, experts said there may be more coffins somewhere on the site.

But the estimates now far exceed what was thought years ago. Some 7,000 graves are thought to be on the campus, according to the local newspaper The Clarion-Ledger.

The patients apparently died at the State Asylum between its opening in 1855 and the 1935 closing. (The modern medical campus started operations in 1955).

The cost of excavating and reburying the bodies could be staggering: $21 million total. The alternate plan is to begin an in-house operation for more than $3 million over eight years, which includes the establishment of a memorial and laboratory to study the remains, according to the newspaper.

The asylum over its 80-year history in Jackson treated thousands of patients – many of whom apparently died in the state’s care and were then buried without markers at the site far to the east of the actual asylum grounds.

Shortly after finding the 66 graves from the roadwork, hospital officials undertook a parking garage. But underground radar revealed a total of 2,000 coffins resting underground on the land, the newspaper reported. Further investigation indicates that 7,000 graves total are spread across the grounds.

The bodies from the Mississippi State Asylum will require major funding to properly investigate and ethically handle, Molly Zuckerman, a biological anthropologist at Mississippi State University, told Laboratory Equipment.

“Removal of the bodies will cost hundreds of thousands to- millions of dollars because ethical and professional standards within archaeology have to be followed in their removal,” she said.  “However, there are very, very few grants available, whether private of federal (public), which cover excavation expenses, and none that I know of are large enough to cover anticipated removal costs.”

Zuckerman and some colleagues at Mississippi State, as well as at Texas State University and elsewhere, have begun to present some of the findings from the 66 bodies unearthed during the road project. Three projects from the Mississippi State Asylum investigators were presented at last month’s annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology in New Orleans, Zuckerman said.

One involved sequencing the bacterial DNA from the teeth of four skeletons, to determine the prevalence of disease in the pre-antibiotic era of the beginning of the 20th century. Another focused on the frequency of deaths from pellagra, a vitamin B deficiency, among 19 skeleton samples.

The third focused on a wider investigation, placing the 66 bodies among the roughly 10,000 people who were documented to have died at the asylum before its closing. This final investigation used tree dating of the wood in a single coffin, as well as radioactive isotope and dental chemistry of the body within, to determine lifestyle – and potentially even the identity of the person.