Saturday, June 12, 2010

Out to unearth skull’s secrets

Amid the documents and paintings and photos, the detritus of centuries, is a reminder of a harder, violent time.

Is this evidence of one of the early struggles between Europeans and the indigenous people of the New World? The earthly remains of a possible saint?

Was it jammed on a stake to rot in the coastal sun?

For more than 50 years, the skull has resisted efforts to answer these questions. Scientists, government officials and educators have wondered: Whose skull is in the locked box in a state historic lab in suburban Atlanta?

Now, thanks to painstaking measurements and breakthroughs in DNA forensics, they may be closer to an answer.

Clash of cultures

Four centuries ago, the low-lying tract we now call Darien, at the mouth of the Altamaha River midway between Savannah and Jacksonville, was at the center of a brewing conflict. It was the land of the Guale, Native Americans who had lived there for centuries. But newcomers wanted it.

Soldier, missionary, explorer: They came from Spain, ready to claim new land for an empire. Among them: Pedro de Corpa, a Franciscan friar. He came to the New World to convert natives to Christianity and spent about a decade in Florida before heading north to an outpost near Darien. He joined at least four other Spanish missionaries working at missions in that remote, wild place. None ever left.

In 1597, de Corpa spoke against the marriage of the nephew of a Guale chieftan. The groom already had a wife, said the friar; taking a second was an affront to God.

That declaration was his doom. On Sept. 14, 1597, Guale warriors attacked de Corpa as he prepared for Mass. According to reports compiled afterward, the warriors, wielding stone axes, chopped off his head. They jammed it onto a stake.

Indians then rampaged along the coast, killing other unwanted newcomers. On their list of victims: Friars Miguel de Anon, Antonio de Badajoz, Blas Rodriguez and Francisco de Verascola. In time, they became known as the Georgia Martyrs — participants in a violent history dimmed by the passage of centuries.

A discovery in a Darien marsh more than 50 years ago brought them back to the present.

Treasure in the trash

Sheila Caldwell had her orders: Search the area for anything historically significant. An archaeologist, she was among the first to assess the site where the state would build Fort King George State Park in Darien.

The park was to take shape on the site where Great Britain established an 18th-century outpost. The fort, like the Spanish missions that preceded it, had vanished under vine and earth, water and bog.

Some time between 1952 and 1954 — records aren’t clear — Caldwell made a discovery. It came to light in a midden, a trash heap where the Guale centuries earlier had discarded refuse.

A skull. It wasn’t particularly impressive. Mud-stained, it had lost its lower jaw. The facial area was particularly battered.

Turning it over, Caldwell made another discovery. The round hole at the base of the skull, where the spinal cord entered the cranium, had been destroyed. The bone there was jagged, broken. It was as if something had been rammed forcibly into the skull.

Something like a wooden stake, perhaps.

State officials kept the skull at Fort King George State Park. Officially, it was listed as item No. FKG-121.

Everyone called it Father de Corpa.

Back into the light

The skull might still be at the park but for Debbie Wallsmith. In 2000, she joined the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a parks curator and asked that the skull be sent to a lab at Panola Mountain State Park.

It was a logical move. The building houses a Chinese menu of items from Georgia’s past. Wallsmith, now a DNR cultural resources manager, placed the skull in a locked box, occasionally bringing it out on request.

In 2004, she opened it for Christopher Stojanowski, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and an expert in skulls. He came to Georgia at the request of the Rev. Conrad Harkins, an educator at Franciscan University and a leading proponent to have the slain friars declared saints.

Harkins thought the skull would turn out to be a historical red herring — a cranium of a Native American, most likely. But he had to know.

So did Stojanowski. “I was fully expecting to see this [skull] and say, ‘Ah, this is silly,’ ” said Stojanowski, who now teaches forensic anthropology at Arizona State. “I was quite taken aback.”

For two days, Stojanowski measured the skull from all angles with calipers, recording his findings. He returned to Illinois; the skull returned to its case.

Tantalizing findings

In February 2005, Stojanowski produced a report. Its conclusions:

● The skull had been that of a middle-aged man; de Corpa was in his thirties when he was killed.

● The broken edges indicated the skull had been treated harshly; impalement certainly qualifies.

● It was that of a European; de Corpa came from Spain.

Stojanowski’s not sure if the skull is that of de Corpa. De Verascola, he noted, also was killed in the area, and was scalped — the skull shows evidence of a scalping.

“The truth is, we don’t know what happened to the skull,” he said. Learning whose skull it was, he said, could be just as difficult.

Stojanowski also discovered evidence of lice in the tiny holes where ears had been. If those lice were alive when the man was killed, perhaps they have some trace evidence of the victim’s DNA that could be matched.

Until then, the skull remains in a box, its secrets, and a 400-year-old legend, still locked away.

Davis, Mark. 2010. "Out to unearth skull’s secrets" Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Posted: March 19, 2010. Available online:

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