Canoe guide Charles Allen first noticed the bones found on the Trinity in August 2001, but he knew better than to dig them up.
Canoe guide Charles Allen first noticed the bones found on the Trinity in August 2001, but he knew better than to dig them up.
Peter Calvin

Bag o' Bones

One August morning last year, a woman heading out to fish along the banks of the Trinity River stumbled upon a partially buried human skull. Dallas police and a representative from the medical examiner's office soon were at the scene, looking at the skull. The medical examiner dug up the remains and drove them off to the morgue.

Sergeant Joe DeCorte, Dallas Police Department homicide division, was assigned to the case and initially treated it in the same way he would treat the discovery of any human remains, he says.

"It's somebody's remains. You don't know what the heck it is," he says. "A lot of people drown down there on the Trinity River, and they wash up."

The medical examiner's report brought the investigation to an unsolved end. If there were a killer, detectives weren't going to find him. The bones, the report said, were really old.

"I mean, we knew they were old but didn't know they were that old," DeCorte says. "...I would have thought 5 or 6 years old."

DeCorte, who is not real happy to be stuck with the nickname "Bones," thanks to the discovery and subsequent investigation, says the victim, probably a woman older than 30, died about 1,000 years ago, give or take a century or two.

What's more, it turns out that it probably would have been better for everybody, including the deceased--who now reportedly resides in a paper sack at the morgue--if the medical examiner had left his shovel at home last year. No one from any government agency or Indian tribe is claiming the bag of bones or the burial site.

That's because finding a possibly significant archaeological site is an expensive and not always popular proposition. Somebody needs to investigate and document the find and determine its potential archaeological value, and right now, no government agency is claiming ownership. If the bones were above the river's "gradient boundary" (something like a water line), then the bones and the burial site become a local issue for the city or county. If the bones were below the boundary, then one of the state's agencies would be responsible because the state owns the riverbed.

For the moment, while the bones await reinterment, the Dallas Park and Open Space Board is the only agency even debating the issue. They've tried to start a dialogue with a state agency, any state agency, for the past year but have gotten no response, says Joanne Hill, a board member.

"We've had these discussions now for months. The county has sent many letters to the Texas Historical Commission and all the appropriate agencies and have gotten basically no response," she says. "We on the open space board have been hoping that the state of Texas would step in and say, yeah, we'll take responsibility for that since we felt that it lay within the gradient boundary of the state of Texas."

The board decided this month that if the state does not respond soon, then it will "bite the bullet and do whatever is necessary." That means, Hill says, they will attempt to find out what Indian tribe may have an interest in the remains and the burial site.

"To just let this body languish as long as it has in Dallas County in a bag or a box or wherever they put him, we feel, is not appropriate," she says. "I feel it's not appropriate, and other members of the committee agree 100 percent. It's time to move on and do the right thing. The reason people don't want to touch it is because it costs a lot of money. It can cost you up to several hundred thousand dollars if you get involved in this."

Charles Allen, a canoe guide who runs Trinity River Expeditions, doesn't think it is appropriate either. It turns out that Allen actually saw the skull and bones the day before the unidentified fisherman did. Allen says he had launched a group on a canoe trip on Sunday and was just exploring the wildlife as he usually does when he saw the skull in the bank. Unlike the woman who would call the police when she saw the skull the next morning, Allen opted to keep it quiet, to call an archaeologist friend and have him take a look.

"I went and got my camera and came back and took basically the rest of both rolls of film in my cameras and went home and called a friend of mine who is an archaeologist," he says. "He couldn't come out the next day...So we didn't get back out there until Tuesday. When we got back out there, there was just a hole in the ground. It was gone, and we didn't know what happened. We figured somebody just saw it and dug it up."

It was obvious to Allen that the remains would be of more interest to an archaeologist than they would to a police detective. But he wasn't there when police arrived, and no one asked him, he says. Allen, accompanied by Tim Dalbey, his friend and an advanced archaeology doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, examined the remains at the medical examiner's office.

"We were able to go over there to the morgue and take a look at it, take some more pictures," Allen says. "They basically had it laid out on a gurney."

The medical examiner's office was skeptical about the age of the bones. But, Dalbey says, the office allowed a piece of rib to be dated using what is known as "carbon dating," a common method archaeologists use to determine the age of something such as bones. Tests, which Dalbey paid for, showed that the bones are somewhere around 900 to 1,000 years old, which is actually not as old as they thought the remains might be.

Besides the bones, which were found about 18 feet below the top of the riverbank, the potential dig site itself could be large and could add to the dearth of information about Indian tribes in the area at that time, Dalbey says.

"What they didn't realize is that it was part of a bigger archaeological site. A skeleton is just one part of a bigger site of the people that used to live there," Dalbey says. "There are earthen features, fire pits and hearths and stuff like that, which is indicative of a pre-historic Indian site...We wanted to prove to the coroner that this was not a modern burial. This had to do with a more prehistoric realm, and they shouldn't have actually been down there digging," he says.

No one from the medical examiner's office would agree to be interviewed for this article or even be identified as a representative from that office. The Dallas Observer did confirm, however, that the remains are still in the medical examiner's possession.

Allen says the way the remains and the site have been treated are probably typical. Unlike such discoveries depicted on public television programs, no one seems inclined to treasure this site for its archaeological value, importance or even interest, he says.

"I think it's a real good example of what happens with archaeological sites," Allen says. "They don't look real hard for evidence of archaeological sites, and when they do find it, it's a big fight over who's going to pay for documentation of it, and that's what's going on right now."

Dalbey says the simple fact is that no one wants to claim the site because they don't want to pay for it.

"The point is that it's on county property, but the county doesn't want to 'fess up that it's theirs," he says.


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