This lecture provides a retrospective look at the political, regulatory, methodological, and ethical conundrums that characterize ongoing research that emerged from an archeological recovery contract associated with the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery. Today, the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery (MCPFC) project has developed into a multifaceted research initiative focused on one of the largest systematically excavated and permanently curated collections of osteological and material culture remains in the United States. Since 2008 the UWM Archaeological Research Laboratory has curated all human remains, material culture, and documentation associated with the 1991 and 1992 excavations of over 1,600 individuals at the MCPFC.
In 2013, UWM’s cultural resource management program conducted excavations of an additional 632 separate coffin burials representing over 800 individuals. In addition to single interments, multiple interments composed of complete individual skeletons as well as body parts likely reflective of autopsy and medical school cadaver use characterize the excavated burials. In addition, many graves contained debris consisting of general refuse and/or medical waste. This pattern is likely associated with dramatic land-use changes resulting from the development of the MCPF property from a general county facility to its current use as home to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and the Medical College of Wisconsin. While the goals of individual MCPFC analyses are diverse, all research is guided by the overarching goal of returning a voice and an identity to individuals robbed of both by burial in the MCPFC.