Nothing like the discovery of old bones to breathe new life into a mausoleum.
Vertebrae, ribs, a hip bone and a sternum that could be from a pre-teen child were found last week in the Baynard Mausoleum, the oldest intact structure on Hilton Head Island.
So what's the big deal about finding bones in a mausoleum, I wondered when I was called with the breathless news.
It's a big deal because the classic structure from 1846 was long thought to be stripped bare by grave robbers and vandals, hunters, partying teenagers or maybe even the guy who scratched on an inner wall: "JB Loves Pam."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It's a big deal for the private Heritage Library of Hilton Head because next Thursday it kicks off a $440,000 capital campaign to preserve the mausoleum and the 2.8-acre Zion Chapel of Ease cemetery where it rests at the intersection of U.S. 278 and Mathews Drive.
And for Carol Mathis of Connecticut, it's like holding a rich family history that was unknown to her for most of her life.
She stood in a light rain Tuesday morning at the mausoleum, her family lineage sketched on a legal pad showing that the William E. Baynard who built it was the brother of her great-great-grandfather.
"That could be the bones of an ancestor of mine," she said. "It's very, very exciting."
Coffin lid ajar
William Eddings Baynard and his wife Catherine raised four children in what is today Sea Pines. He was a fabulously wealthy planter of Sea Island cotton, owning several other plantations and the Davenport House in Savannah.
Baynard died at age 49, five years after building his 21-niche mausoleum beside an Episcopal church that vanished after the Civil War along with the planters. Baynard etched "Integrity and Uprightness" on its sandstone exterior, and adorned it with carvings of upside down torches signifying life cut short.
It is believed seven burials took place there, but it's easier to find ghost stories and myths than facts.
A 1901 story in The State newspaper of Columbia recounted the story of a Beaufort hunter who came across the old tomb. He described marble doors, a vestibule, wooden coffins and two iron coffins shaped like a human body.
"The lid had been displaced," he said of a coffin lying on the stone floor, "and upon lifting it carefully aside, a gruesome sight was disclosed to view. Within reposed the remains of a young woman which appeared to have suffered but slightly from the ravages of time.
"Her long, blonde hair was perfectly intact as were also her features. Gently taking her hand the narrator, who is a physician, found to his astonishment that the flesh was pliable and soft as in life, the arms were covered with a growth of hair an inch and a half long."
The lid was reverently replaced.
University of South Carolina Beaufort assistant professor Kimberly K. Cavanagh and students in her "Primates, People and Prehistory" class found something less dramatic last Thursday while scraping through dusty burial racks. But it was more exciting than the Budweiser bottle, Tropicana bottle and mummified rat.
While filling large Lowe's paper bags cheerily labeled "Yard of the Day," they found human bones.
The students still have more dust to sift through as the tomb is prepared for its hoped-for new life free from seeping moisture and prying hands.
Beaufort County Coroner J. Edward Allen visited the mausoleum Tuesday morning along with his deputy, Dr. Roger Sorg of Hilton Head, a retired pathologist. They looked at the bones lying on little brown lunch bags and said they are not the remains of recent foul play. Sorg speculated they could belong to one person, a child of about 10.
Allen suggested ways to have the bones dated and perhaps linked by DNA to descendants of the Baynard family. He said they should then be reinterred.
The Heritage Library has worked for years to stabilize the mausoleum and plan for its refurbishment. The nonprofit reference library and research center inherited the cemetery from the Hilton Head Historical Society.
Students and professors from the Savannah College of Art and Design have helped it get moisture and plants out and reinforce the roof.
Plans call for mausoleum and cemetery preservation, endowed maintenance and an outdoor learning center.
And now, some bones to trace.
Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.