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June 2007

June 2007 was another interesting and productive month for archaeological work in the Joint Courts Complex (JCC) project area. As anticipated, we spent the month focused on the discovery and excavation of grave features in the civilian portion of the former National Cemetery. We also continued to discover and excavate features associated with the residential and commercial development of the project area in the years after the cemetery closed. June was our eighth full month of fieldwork. With the end of our planned one year of fieldwork approaching, we were eager to determine just how many graves the project area holds. Graves are the most time-consuming and planning-intensive part of the project, so making a reliable estimate of the total number requiring excavation, analysis, and write-up was a priority for the month. It will continue to be a priority in July, as we complete our exploration of the full extent of the former cemetery.

The ongoing demolition of modern features in the project area gave us full access to two important parts of the former cemetery. First, the building that stood at 240 North Stone is now completely gone, including its concrete slab foundation, which means we were finally able to explore the area under the building. We long suspected that this was part of the heart of the former civilian cemetery, and this has been confirmed by our exploratory excavations. The high density of graves first observed immediately east of the building does indeed extend west to Stone Avenue. Apart from the removal of the original surface features of the cemetery, this area is marked by only limited post-cemetery disturbances.

Second, most of the utility lines under Council Street were disconnected in June (only a bank of electrical lines is still in place and protected), which means we were able to expand our exploration below the street. The density of graves below Council Street, from about 20 feet east of Stone Avenue to about 120 feet east, is exceptionally high and almost certainly represents one of the oldest and most heavily used areas in the former cemetery. Together, the footprint of 240 North Stone and the west end of Council Street caused a drastic leap in the number of graves identified in the project area by the end of the month: from 496 to 858, for a month’s total of 362 newly discovered graves. This is by far the largest monthly increase since the project began.

With about 85 percent of the former National Cemetery—or the portion of it preserved within our project area—now explored, we expect our total grave count by the end of fieldwork to exceed 1,100. Before we began fieldwork, our archival research suggested that between 1,800 and 2,200 people had died in Tucson during the period the civilian portion of the National Cemetery was open (ca. 1860–1875). Since the National Cemetery was Tucson’s only cemetery during that period, we felt that it potentially held a similar number of graves. For the first several months of fieldwork, our results suggested that the total grave count would never approach the 1,800–2,200 range, but such a total now seems reasonable for the cemetery as a whole. It is clear that the density of graves is, in places, much higher than we saw early in the project, and that the parts of the cemetery that either fall outside our project area or have been destroyed by earlier construction projects may well have been of very high density. Most notably, the basement of the former Tucson Newspapers building, which stood at the southeast corner of Stone Avenue and Council Street, likely destroyed a large number of graves, given that it is immediately adjacent to the area of very high grave density we found at the west end of Council. When the south half of the basement was dug in 1940, just one skeleton was reported; when the north half was dug in 1953, 80 to 120 skeletons were reported. But neither discovery was made by archaeologists, and the only reports that survive are brief newspaper articles from the period, so it is difficult to judge how accurate the counts of skeletons were. We now suspect that the accounts of both excavations seriously underestimated the number of destroyed graves. If the density of graves we have seen in Council Street continued south across the footprint of the former Tucson Newspapers building, the total number of graves in the overall National Cemetery may well have fallen in the 1,800–2,200 range.

Before we began excavation in Council Street, the portions of the cemetery we had already exposed showed an uncomplicated layout of graves, with obvious, fairly regular rows and only a few instances of later graves intruding on earlier graves. Grave density varied somewhat across the cemetery, but it was rarely so dense that adjacent graves impinged on each other. In Council Street, the pattern is markedly different: as elsewhere in the cemetery, most graves have their long axis oriented east-west, but there are repeated intrusions—some possibly intentional but many clearly unwitting—of earlier graves by later graves, and very little empty space between graves. The many superimpositions and disturbances make archaeological excavation a slow, painstaking process, and things are complicated further by the many utility trenches running east-west under Council Street, each of which has intersected and disturbed multiple graves.

We have now defined what were apparently the western, northern, and eastern limits of this densely packed area. Its western limit is about 20 feet east of the modern Stone Avenue curb; its northern limit runs roughly on the same line as the north curb of Council Street but at a slightly different angle; its eastern limit is near the alley that runs north-south between Alameda and Council Streets. The dense area is clearly delimited from the surrounding areas of lower density and was probably once marked by a fence or wall, though we have not yet found any trace of such a feature. The area measures approximately 100 feet east-west. About 40 feet of its north-south extent have been exposed; most of the rest of its north-south extent, whatever it once measured, was destroyed by the Tucson Newspapers basement.

We suspect that this very dense area was the oldest, most heavily used portion of the civilian cemetery. Perhaps these were the original limits of the civilian cemetery, which were abandoned when the cemetery became too full. As the cemetery expanded into the surrounding area, perhaps less emphasis was placed on fixed limits. It is worth noting that in 1872, when the Tucson town site was first laid out, a very large parcel that included the existing cemetery was set aside for use as a cemetery. Much of that large parcel was never used before the civilian cemetery closed in 1875. As we expose more of the very dense area, and the less-dense areas around it, we may learn more about the chronology and function of this unique portion of the site.