The skull of the suspected Civil War soldier arrived at the Smithsonian in a square box.
The lower jaw was missing, as were four front teeth and some nasal bones, but otherwise it was in remarkable condition, considering that it was thought to have been in the ground at Gettysburg since 1863.
The skull made headlines last year when it was saved from the auction block by public outrage. It was due for a soldier’s burial once it had been checked by the Smithsonian’s experts.
But the moment veteran anthropologist Douglas Owsley set eyes on it, he knew it wasn’t as advertised.
It wasn’t from Gettysburg. And it didn’t date from 1863, the year of the battle.
It was far older than that.
The “Gettysburg skull” was that of a young Native American man who lived about 700 years ago, 2,000 miles away in Arizona or New Mexico.
How could the skull of a man who had lived in the Southwest around the year 1300 be pegged as that of a Civil War veteran and almost get offered at an auction in Hagerstown, Md., last spring?
Officials at the Smithsonian, the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation, which now owns the skull, have been trying to sort it all out. But for the moment, they have reached a dead end.
“The case is suspended, pending further information,” but it’s not closed, said Ed Clark, superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park. “There’s a lot of questions unanswered. . . . How it got to Pennsylvania is not something we know.”
The story began last year when a Pennsylvania auctioneer named Tom Taylor placed the skull, along with several other supposed Civil War artifacts, in an auction that was to take place in June in a hotel in Hagerstown.
A handwritten label with the items stated: “Found at the Benner Farm Gettysburg 1949.”
The skull came with a more specific notarized document stating that it had been found near a barn on the farm about two miles north of Gettysburg.
It turned up while someone was tilling a garden, the document said. The barn had served as a field hospital and was the scene of fighting on the first day of the battle, July, 1, 1863, according to the document.
Taylor, of Hershey, Pa., who said he had asked for the document, said in a recent interview that it seemed like “the ultimate Civil War item.” He believed it might have fetched $100,000 or more and said he had potential buyers.
But when word got out about the auction, negative public reaction was so fierce that he pulled the skull from the sale.
“I’m not going to sell something if there are too many people upset about it,” he said. “It’s kind of a morbid thing to begin with.”
Clark, the Gettysburg park superintendent, said, “The prospect of selling and buying American soldiers’ remains is just crazy.”
The skull’s former owner, who lives in Pennsylvania, has not been publicly identified, but Clark said he had been interviewed.
“There’s no evidence that would lead us to believe that there was some kind of fraudulent activity or false claim,” he said. The skull “had changed hands a number of times before it got to the auction.”
He declined to go into details of the investigation.
After the outcry, the skull was donated to the Gettysburg Foundation, the national battlefield’s private partner, he said.
The foundation’s president, Joanne M. Hanley, drove to Hagerstown to get it. “Kept it with me on the front seat next to me the whole time on my way back to Gettysburg,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Although the battlefield was littered with dead soldiers in 1863 and there are probably still bones buried there, Clark said discoveries of remains are rare.
The plan was that once the skull was authenticated, it would be buried with full military honors in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, where 3,500 soldiers are buried and where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
“We felt that if these were remains of a soldier of either side, the Confederacy or the Union, they deserved respect and a proper burial,” Clark said.
Then science intervened.
The skull was delivered by the Park Service to a lab at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History last June 26.
Owsley and colleague Kari Bruwelheide, in the museum’s anthropology department, knew right away it didn’t fit the story.
“First reaction is: It’s not what they think it is,” said Owsley, who has studied thousands of skulls during his career.
It had a “relatively flat face, [which] gets into Indian characteristics,” and a wide, robust structure that wouldn’t be that of a white or black person in Pennsylvania, he said.
Plus, its condition was too good, Owsley said in an interview last month.
In the 1990s, he examined 15 sets of remains in a 19th-century cemetery in Gettysburg during a building project. So he has a good idea of how buried remains from that time and place should look.
Because of the moist soil in southern Pennsylvania, this skull should have been far more deteriorated. It would have been in “multiple pieces,” Owsley said.
“Preservation just didn’t fit,” he said. “It’s [in] too good a shape. It’s not the right type of weathering and cracking.”
Plus, the teeth seemed too worn for a young 19th-century person, he said.
In addition, at some point someone had coated the skull with shellac, perhaps to preserve it, giving it a mottled, dark brown color.
Owsley said he had seen that many times before. You could see where the veneer was peeling off in places, revealing the natural gray beneath.
To determine the age of the skull, Owsley took a tiny piece of tooth and sent it to Jeff Speakman, director of applied isotope studies at the University of Georgia.
Speakman, using radiocarbon dating, reported that the skull was about seven centuries old.
Other tests suggested that the individual’s diet was mainly corn and that he probably originated in southwestern New Mexico or southeastern Arizona, Owsley said.
He said the person was in his early 20s and could have been a member of a tribe such as the Zuni.
Neither Owsley nor Bruwelheide was surprised by the test results, which confirmed their hunches.
“This is not the only example of this sort of thing that we’ve dealt with,” Bruwelheide said. “In these types of cases, it’s more unusual that [the story is] real than that it’s not real.”
The goal is the truth, they said.
“This person doesn’t need to be misidentified and put in that grave” in Gettysburg, Owsley said. “In the same sense, if he had been [a soldier], we’d want to recognize and acknowledge that, too.”
It’s not clear what will happen to the skull now.
“Now that it’s taken this . . . pretty unexpected and spectacular turn . . . we still stand where we respect [that] this is a human individual,” Clark, the battlefield superintendent, said. “We’re still trying to figure out what’s the best course of action.”