The remarkably well-preserved 120-year-old skeletal remains of a Manassas man, including brain matter, bone marrow, fingernails and hair, are being analyzed by researchers seeking clues about the man's lifestyle, diet and the cause of his death.
The collaborative effort that involves the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History began in April after descendants of Civil War veteran Walter Weir asked for help in excavating family graves from a plot of land now surrounded by a townhouse development.
Most graves revealed only skeletal fragments. But Weir's coffin, made of durable cast iron, was filled with ground water that protected the bone structure.
"The skeleton was remarkably well preserved," said Dick Levinson, community-relations specialist at the Armed Forces museum. "There was still body hair. There was still cartilage. From a scientific point of view, there was a great deal to work with, and we'll be doing what we can, including DNA studies."
Smithsonian scientists have taken samples from all parts of the skeleton and expect to complete much of their work this summer. The coffin and black tuxedo in which Weir was buried will become part of the Armed Forces museum's historical collection.
So far, scientists have pieced together this picture of Weir: He was 5'9" tall and died at about age 31. He suffered from a grossly abscessed tooth, which might have contributed to the still-unknown cause of his death.
Family historians have told researchers that Weir served in the Fourth Virginia Infantry during the Civil War. He was the son of William and Harriet Weir, who were among the wealthiest landowners in Virginia, and graduated from illiam and Mary College in 1859. In the 1870 U.S. Census, he was listed as a farmer. He was married and the father of one daughter.
The remains will be reinterred next month at an unspecified location to be determined by his descendants.
"They're very excited about this research," said Paul Sledzik, curator of anatomical collections at the Armed Forces museum. "They're a progressive family. They understand the value of the research, and they've had a chance to understand who was who and what they might have died from."