Ball State archaeologist use radar to locate graves

Between 1848 and 1905, Central State Hospital buried hundreds of deceased patients in an acre-sized rectangle on its sprawling grounds located west of downtown Indianapolis.

The people buried there — coming from all areas of Indiana — died while in the care of the hospital, having suffered from a myriad of mental illnesses. Some were Civil War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others contracted syphilis before the age of antibiotics, and the disease spread to their brains. Many were elderly people with dementia.

A Ball State archaeologist pushes ground-penetrating radar through a gravesite
Archaeologist Kevin Jones pushes a ground-penetrating radar through a gravesite at the former grounds of Central State Hospital.

“The families dropped their loved ones off and they became wards of the state,” said Jeannie Regan-Dinius, ’93, a public history major at Ball State and now an historian for the State of Indiana who oversees cemetery preservation efforts. 

In the mid-20th century, Central State Hospital administrators removed any markers from this section of the cemetery for reasons that aren’t clear. Today, the cemetery looks like a small pasture with ankle-high grass, surrounded by chain-link fence. There’s not even a sign to mark the presence of graves.  

Over several days this past summer, Kevin Nolan, the University’s senior archaeologist and director of its Applied Anthropology Laboratories (AAL), was among those hard at work on this anonymous acreage. Wearing a facemask, rancher hat, and high-visibility pink T-shirt, he appeared at first glance to be pushing a lawnmower back and forth.

A voice to the voiceless

Ball State archaeologist review radar data
Ball State senior Ball State senior archaeologist Kevin Nolan, left, and staff archaeologist Erin Powers, right, review radar data. t Kevin Nolan, left, and staff archaeologist Erin Powers, right, review radar data.

In fact, it was a ground-penetrating radar connected to software capable of mapping underground anomalies; in this case, the metal hardware that held together each buried wooden casket.

With this technology, Ball State archeologists hope to identify where and how many of the deceased hospital patients are buried there as well as precisely determine the cemetery’s boundaries.

“This project is about giving a voice back to the voiceless,” said AAL staff archaeologist Erin Powers, who leads the project. “It’s about helping marginalized and underserved communities.”

The cemetery is on land managed by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Mounted Horse Patrol, and this work is part of a larger project of the Indiana Medical History Museum, which is housed in the hospital’s former pathology laboratory.

Sarah Halter, the museum’s executive director, hopes to use the AAL data to eventually install new markers, albeit without names, to identify individual grave sites, and post interpretive signage to help explain the cemetery’s history to visitors. Another possibility is that the museum will post a single marker listing the names of everyone identified in records as having been buried at the site.

“We’ll never know who is buried where,” she said. “But this is really about rehumanizing the patients.”

Best intentions

A woman's ward known as Seven Steeples at a state hospital
The women’s ward was known as Seven Steeples for its unique architecture. It was demolished in the 1970s.

In the 1920s, around 2,000 people lived on the hospital’s 160-acre grounds known for ornate Victorian buildings and idyllic gardens. The design was influenced by what historians call “The Moral Treatment Movement,” a period of optimism among medical practitioners who thought that proper rest, occupational therapy, and humane treatment could cure those suffering from mental illness.

It wasn’t just a hope on their part,” said Halter. “It did improve care for many and outcomes for some. It just wasn’t enough.

Lacking modern medicine and adequate financial support from the state of Indiana, most people didn’t get better. Central State and other hospitals eventually grew overcrowded. Optimism gave way to corruption and mismanagement, and the quality of care declined.

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 and the development of psychotropic medications resulted in more outpatient care. By the 1970s, most of the beautiful buildings on the grounds were razed, having fallen into disrepair. And in 1994, after years of decline, the hospital closed.

A horizontal cross section of a human brain at the Indiana Medical History Museum

The museum opened in 1969, with a mission to explain the beginnings of scientific psychiatry and modern medicine in an historic setting. It is known, in part, for its extensive collection of anatomical specimens — mostly brains in jars and skeletons. Each was removed from a deceased patient with permission from surviving family members for the purpose of medical study.

For much of its existence, the museum’s lacked adequate representation of patient lives and experiences. As a result, the museum has recently undergone an overhaul to give context to its collection and show respect to those who lived at Central State. 

Now, for example, each specimen includes a sign identifying the owner and relating his or her story.

The cemetery partnership with Ball State, Halter said, is part of this larger effort. With all the recent improvements at the museum and planned enhancements of the cemetery, the goal is to help normalize and destigmatize mental illness.

“It’s about fostering compassion,” she said. “These people buried here were human, just like us.”