Construction workers digging outside a Northwest
Washington apartment building have unearthed a cast-iron
casket that experts believe probably dates to the late 19th
workers surround the cast-iron
casket they found at a construction
site in the 1400 block of Columbia
Monday evening, after word of the archaeological find spread
through the neighborhood and crowds of onlookers had
gathered throughout the day, workers locked the casket in
the empty building for safekeeping.
But that night, vandals went to work. According to
Boyd, they bashed in the building's back door, cracked the
casket's iron faceplate and broke the sheet of glass beneath
"When I saw the damage the next day, I was shocked
that someone would be so stupid, so animal-like that they
would do this to something so historic and to someone's
tomb," Boyd said. "It was like these people were grave
robbers or something."
He said that some neighbors told him they had
observed several youngsters breaking into the building about
8 p.m. but did not call police.
Because of the damage, Boyd could partially see the
contents of the casket: a head with strands of blond hair,
leathery skin and a scarf wrapped around it. He said he
could not tell whether the remains were those of a man or
Boyd said that the workers subsequently taped the
casket and moved it to another building owned by DBT
Development, the company doing the work at the Columbia Road
Boyd said that DBT will keep the casket until a
representative from the Smithsonian Institution takes
custody of it next week. But Randall Kremer, spokesman for
the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said
that one of the organization's forensic anthropologists
first plans to examine the casket.
"We will look at it next week to see whether we
want to take it and add it to the national collection,"
Kremer said. "It could take a few days to complete the
Nancy Kassner, an archaeologist with the D.C.
Historic Preservation Office, said that she has yet to
examine the casket but has concerns about the effects of the
vandalism on the artifact and its contents.
"Air has gotten into it and probably done damage.
Air can facilitate disintegration," Kassner said. She said
that her office eventually would like to see the body
reinterred "somewhere suitable because that's what should be
done out of respect for the dead."
Kassner said she believes that the casket predates
Calvary Methodist Church, which is next door to the Columbia
Road apartment building and was constructed in 1902, because
the soil around the coffin does not appear to have been
Jane Freundel Levey, a historian for the nonprofit
group Cultural Tourism D.C., said that beginning in the late
1860s, what is known today as Columbia Heights was one of
the District's earliest upper-middle-class developments,
checkered by large, free-standing houses. She also noted
that the area between the Duke Ellington Bridge and 14th
Street NW once had five Civil War hospitals.
Other experts pointed out that cast-iron caskets
were expensive at the time and that the individual buried in
the one found in Columbia Heights might have been a person
Boyd said his construction team had to hold onto
the casket, which was found about three feet below a gas
line, because it could not get the police department or any
other District agency to pick it up.
Lt. William Farr of the D.C. police homicide unit
said the casket was not a police matter because a homicide
was not involved.
"If it was just bones, it would have been a police
issue," Farr said. "But because this person was in a casket,
it constitutes a proper burial. There was no indication of
He said that police notified the D.C. Department of
Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and was told that someone
from the agency was "on the way."
But no one from DCRA came, Boyd
said. An agency spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Davis, said that "DCRA
had no role in that instance."