Human remains from centuries ago found in path of progress

Published: Dec. 13, 2012 at 11:12 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 20, 2012 at 11:33 PM CST
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Coffins and bones found beneath areas of the Iberville Housing development have put a $30 million re-do of the complex on hold.

Most of the buildings that date back before World War II are slated to be turned into mixed income apartments. In a joint FOX 8 investigation with our partners at The Lens, we learned that land was claimed long ago by some of the city's earliest residents for their resting place.

"They dug in several spots, got some samples and found bones," said Joseph Hills in his version of a cemetery tour around his neighborhood. "You ain't got to worry about the dead, it's the live ones you have to worry about."

Archaeologists left non-descript mounds here and there on the property as clues of their work that began months ago.

"It was a lot of bones, that was about it," said Keavon Hughes. "We thought they were animal bones

From Basin to St. Louis, the Iberville is nestled between St. Louis Cemeteries No. 1 and No. 2.

"I'm scared of dead people," said one woman reacting to being surrounded by graves she can and can't see.

Federal law mandates the digs -- such historic research is required before any old buildings come down to make way for new beginnings.

HANO officials say they had been warned that they'd probably find remains underneath the development before any digging began.  Take a lot at an old map of the area, and you'll see these cemetery walls are in large part illusion.

"St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 was established in 1789," said Daniel Hammer of The Historic New Orleans Collection.  "This map here is from 1841 and it shows here the cemetery at that time, certainly extended over Conti Street and well into what's now Basin Street. It shows this cemetery was larger than it is now," he said.

Hammer said the law states, if you do find human remains, you have to proceed in a certain way and your ability to develop the land may be restricted.

"One night I was in my room and I felt something breathing... breathing on my neck and like I felt my shirt move," said one person uneasy about graves outside his door.

Our partners at The Lens report Iberville architects are looking at converting some of the area into green space around the newfound cemetery.  The Lens also reports HANO plans to incorporate the same number of apartments as earlier slated, but the configuration of buildings must change now.