Graveyard Dig Reveals 1,400 Bodies, Personal Items at Valley Medical Center Site

Archaeologists unearthed skeletal remains in unmarked redwood caskets from a pauper’s graveyard Thursday morning, the final stretch of an excavation to ready the site for a nearby hospital’s expansion.

They found a clay smoking pipe, a wool jacket, an assortment of pocket knives and spectacles, among other personal items buried with the 1,400 or so bodies in the unmarked potter’s field, according to Santa Clara County spokesperson Joy Alexiou.

“In addition to personal items, medical items have also been excavated from the site,” Alexiou says. “Because the ability to sanitize syringes and other medical items was not as effective as it is today, it was a common practice to bury these kinds of items or simply throw them away.”

Construction workers first discovered the site last year while working on the foundation for a new building for the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in downtown San Jose.

More than 630 remains have been dug up so far, none with identifying marks, the county says. Most of those buried are men between 23 and 60-plus years old. The smaller share of remains belonged to women, children and infants.

Lab tests have shown that some of those buried at the site died of syphilis. Others had amputations. Many may have suffered fatal complications from diabetes.

Judging by the hexagon-shaped coffins, the bodies were buried between the late 1800s and 1920s, Alexiou says, left behind because no one claimed the bodies.

The Archaeology Division of URS and D&D Osteological Services managed the dig, which began by isolating and numbering each coffin.

Osteologists study bones, teeth, disease and pathology. Depending on a skeleton’s condition, they may be able to determine the sex, age and diagnosis of some of the remains. Archaeologists, on the other hand, look at the larger picture of how people lived based on what’s left behind.

The team performed separate excavations on each coffin, carefully removing artifacts, wrapping the bones in paper, archiving the remains and sending them to San Francisco State University’s Bio-Anthropology Laboratory for more research.

The county now cremates instead of burying its indigent.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. from the mess hall at the Main Jail.

    Correctional Officer #1: “Hey, what was the sergeant talking about—a lot of dirt, bodies uncovered?”

    CO #2: “I’m not sure. It had something to do with the county. Why don’t you ask the fat guy.”

    CO #1: “Hey George, what do you know about something dirty being uncovered by the county? Supposedly a bunch of experts are all excited over the boxes of evidence collected.”

    CO #2: “George. George! What’s wrong? You okay? You look like you’re going to faint.”


    CO #2 on his radio: “We need medical assistance in the mess hall. Inmate Shirakawa just passed out.

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