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Archaeologists work to expose graves.

Eastern State Hospital Cemetery

Site ID: 15Fa289

Kentucky Archaeological Survey
Unless specified, we cannot provide site location information.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​In 2011, archaeologists documented the graves of patients buried between 1839 and 1861 in the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery.  After grave marker removal, the Hospital incorporated the cemetery area into a pleasure garden. This effectively severed any connection between those interred beneath the surface and the living, and the cemetery quickly faded from the hospital staff’s corporate memory. With no one maintaining the ceme​​tery grounds, it quickly became “out of sight, out of mind,” until it was rediscovered in 2005. 

Archaeologists excavated about two-thirds of the cemetery​ before Bluegrass Technical and Community College took control of the property in 2011. The remaining third is now preserved in place as green space. In 2012, the disinterred remains were reinterred in the northwestern corner of the Bluegrass Technical and Community College campus.​

The history of the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery reflects, in part, the social and economic status of those interred within it. These people were patients - mentally ill or experiencing social problems - who had been admitted to this mental hospital. Many may not have had relatives or family living in the Lexington area who could have taken responsibility for maintaining their loved one's grave. All these factors may have contributed to the​​ "dis​appearance" of the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery.​

Archaeologists expose a single rectangular grave shaft that contained multiple coffins.


​Excavations at the cemetery documented the remains of 186 individuals. They had been interred within three somewhat irregular rows that paralleled the hospital’s 1839 northwestern property line. Within this area, investigators recorded 69 grave shafts: 35 had single interments and 34 had multiple interments. The multiple interments, wh​ich represented from 2 to 10 individuals, may have been linked to a single burial event, such as one of the several mid-nineteenth-century cholera epidemics. As patient deaths peaked during the disease outbreaks, hospital staff may have attempted to inter the dead as quickly as possible in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. 

​At death, Eastern State Hospital residents appeared to have been treated in the same ways as those interred in other mid-nineteenth-century cemeteries - in both urban neighborhood and rural family cemeteries. The deceased was carefully laid to rest in a hexagonal wooden coffin. Arms were placed in the appropriate position following family, cultural, or religious traditions. Men were buried in shirts, jackets and pants, and women, in dresses and shifts. A few were buried with a hair comb or necklace.

According to historic documents, those interred within the cemetery came from a variety of social and economic backgrou​​nds, and they were brought to the hospital from counties throughout the state. In many ways, their lives paralleled those of the communities within which they had lived. Their bones showed that most had experienced considerable amounts of hard labor before and after they entered the hospital. Evidence of restraining garments and of binding legs and arms may reflect some of the treatments for the mental disorders from which these patients suffered.

​​Bioarchaeological data indicated that these people experienced health challenges common among pre-antibiotic nineteenth-century societies, in which malnutrition and infectious disease were common. These deficiencies, coupled with poor sanitation, often made people susceptible to infectious diseases, like respiratory infections and sinusitis. The onset of these conditions could have begun before people entered the hospital, or after patients were​ admitted.

Aerial photograph of multiple excavated grave shafts.

What's Cool?

​Diet from the Bones

H​​u​man bone absorbs, among other things, tiny traces of carbon from the foods we eat. These traces remain in our bones, relatively unchanged once we reach adulthood. Analysis of the carbon isotopes in our bones thus can be used to examine a person's diet and his or her access to particular foods as a child or teenager. From this dietary information, researchers can gain a perspective about where the person grew up or their socioeconomic status. ​

Here is how it works.

As plants grow, they absorb carbon from the earth’s atmosphere, water, and soil.  They store it in their leaves, fruits, nuts, and roots. As plants store the carbon, they change the ratio between the two different forms of carbon (C3 and C4). And depending on where in the world the plants originally grew, the change the plants make is different. C3 plants originally lived in forests or wetlands. Examples of C3 plants include Old World grain crops like wheat and barley. C4 plants originally lived in desert or tropical environments. Examples of C4 plants are corn or sugar cane.  

​Analysts extracted carbon isotopes from the bone collagen of 80 of the individuals buried within the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery. Research results revealed that about one-quarter of the people had diets high in corn products (C4), while slightly more than half had diverse diets that included both corn, and perhaps potatoes and wheat.  The remaining individuals ate little in the way of corn-based foods. 

Some of this variation may have been tied to socioeconomic status. Upper middle class and wealthy patients may have had more diverse diets than poorer patients. It also may indicate that prior to being admitted to the hospital, many of the people buried in the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery had lived in areas where residents were less dependent on corn-based products. For example, they may have recently emigrated to Kentucky from Europe, where people primarily ate C3 plants (Old World grain crops). 

Horn hair combs found with two adults.

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