COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Two feet below the asphalt parking lot once attached to the North Market, archaeologists are digging for 19th-century bones.

The one-acre site, sandwiched between Vine and Spruce streets Downtown, will eventually become a 32-story skyscraper complete with residential units and office and retail space. But before construction begins on the $345 million Merchant Building, developers are forced to reckon with the site’s original purpose: a resting place for Columbus’ dead.

“Being one of the few and only options for burial if you resided or were coming through the city of Columbus, there probably was easily thousands upon thousands of people buried here,” said Krista Horrocks, an archaeologist with the Ohio History Connection’s State Historic Preservation Office who is offering technical assistance with the project.

The future home of the Merchant Building — expected to open in 2025 — was formerly one section of the 11-acre North Graveyard, one of the city’s five original cemeteries that opened in 1813, Horrocks said. 

To pave the way for the multimillion-dollar development, Horrocks said Columbus-based engineering firm Lawhon and Associates was hired to do the dirty work – digging trenches to excavate the centuries-old grave shafts, whose human remains are bound for reburial at Green Lawn Cemetery in southwest Columbus.

Lawhon and Associates unearthed 44 grave shafts from the site in the summer of 2022, but Horrocks said the total number of people laid to rest in the swath of land that was North Market’s parking lot remains a mystery. 

“We just don’t know what we’re going to find,” she said.

Although Horrocks said Columbus residents had suspected the graveyard’s existence after its final remains were buried in 1864, it wasn’t until 2001 that archaeological firm Weller & Associates realized the cemetery’s extent. 

Owner Ryan Weller said his firm was hired to oversee improvements to Columbus’ sanitation system; he and his colleagues “had no idea a cemetery was gonna be involved.” Weller clued in, he said, when he got a frantic phone call from a coworker.

“He calls me and says, ‘You gotta get down here quick – two arms just fell in a trench.’ That was our discovery moment,” Weller said.

In a 403-page report detailing the firm’s findings, Weller said he and his coworkers unearthed 43 grave shafts, some of which included full-fledged skeletons while others were home to fragmented remains. 

Other artifacts discovered in the grave shafts, like buttons and fabric, allowed Weller and his team to deduce more information about the lives of those buried in the North Graveyard.

“What a mishmash of Columbus at that time, the people coming in and leaving,” Weller said. “To me, it shows the diversity that Columbus is – there were children, there were adults, there were healthy people; people you could tell who really worked hard.”

After Weller’s team concluded its excavation in 2001, Horrocks said the remains were relocated to Section R of the Greenlawn Cemetery – the same spot to which Columbus residents were encouraged to rebury their dead more than a century before.

Mirroring a nationwide movement away from urban cemeteries, the city of Columbus encouraged residents in the 1860s to move their loved ones out of the North Graveyard and into Green Lawn Cemetery, a swath of land that at the time was considered rural, Horrocks said.

“The North Graveyard was not being well cared for. It had animals running through it; it was wet and muddy in some areas, so I think it would have actually been kind of appealing for people to be able to move their families out to Greenlawn,” she said.

But relocating a loved one’s body was a luxury reserved for wealthier Columbus families who had the financial means to do so, Horrocks said. The majority of people buried at North Graveyard did not fall in that category, and thus their skeletons were left untouched.

Although it’s unclear how many total people remain buried at the North Graveyard, Horrocks said today’s excavation project is a welcome step toward properly memorializing Columbus’ ancestors.

“The best thing about all of this,” Horrocks said, “is that finally, the people can rest in peace.”