Final Say: Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni
Nicholas Bellantoni, 62, serves as the state archaeologist with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He lives in Newington.
How often are you asked if you carry a whip and a pistol?
[laughs] Back in the ’80s when the movies first appeared, I got a call from the Associated Press asking what my opinion was of the Indiana Jones concept and I was a bit hard on it, saying it was more treasure hunting than the science of archaeology, which is what we really do. Unfortunately, that went across the nation and the next thing I knew NBC was asking me to go on “Today” to debate Harrison Ford ! I said, “No, no, no!” Fortunately, Harrison also said no, so it never came to pass. Seeing Indiana Jones and wanting to be an archaeologist is like watching Luke Skywalker and wanting to be an astronaut—no connection to reality. However, we love the adventures, the movies are a lot of fun. My kids when they were little were upset that I left the house without a pistol and a whip, but it wasn’t necessary, believe me!
What inspired you to spend your life digging in the dirt?
I’m a late bloomer. It took a while for me to get going. I was very immature in high school and as a grammar school student. My poor parents—I can’t remember a parent-teacher meeting when my mother didn’t come home crying, I was such a problem. Barely graduated. But in the mid ’60s after I graduated from high school, I did go into the service and served four years in the U.S. Navy, and was a bit more mature when I came back as a result. I just want to make it clear, I wasn’t in Vietnam; my service was aboard an aircraft carrier with NATO—we were up in the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic hunting Russian nuclear subs, playing war games, really.
When I got out of the service, I had no skills and needed to make something of myself. I used the G.I. bill to go to college. No college would take me because I had such poor grades in grade school, but Middlesex Community College in Middletown took me in as a returning veteran and gave me a chance. I did well there. I took a course and anthropology and it was like a light switch went on. I went like, “Wow!” The next thing I knew I transferred to Central Connecticut State University where I majored in archaeology and anthropology, the next thing I knew I was in grad school, the next thing I knew was I graduated with my doctorate, the next thing I know they gave me a job. So I was a late, late bloomer. I didn’t even think of being an archaeologist or even think it was feasible, until I was 25 years old, which most people say is kind of late.
What’s the biggest challenge in teaching archaeology to students?
I think the challenge right now is keeping their attention, even outside of class. There’s just so much going on in their world, so much technology in the palm of their hand, that they’re easily distracted into other things. We like to think that we multitask—can they be doing other things while they look into a lecture—but the human brain just doesn’t work like that. We may fool ourselves into thinking we’re multitasking but you can only really concentrate on one thing at a time and you lose other aspects.
I think the issue is keeping them with you, and also stressing the significance of archaeology and archaeological sites. We live in such a future-oriented culture where we’re trying to keep up with the latest technology, the latest computers and all, we lose the past very quickly. Why does it become old-fashioned or irrelevant? Why is it important to know how they lived here during the Colonial era or how Native Americans adapted to changing environments thousands of years ago. Why is that significant to them today. You have to make cogent arguments to make them understand that the science of archaeology has a role in the contemporary society in terms of understanding these things in the past. I think that’s a hard message, too, because we and they are so future-oriented.
What role does archaeology play in a growing technological world?
Archaeology teaches us about how humans have adapted and changed their behavior for thousands of years. The concept of sustainability, of how we make decisions today on how we live on the land and manage food resources—people have done this before. Only they’ve done it at different levels of technology at different times, and we can learn from those decisions. Humans are humans, whether they occupied the planet thousands of years ago or they occupy it today in the 21st century.
Does that fly in the face of the old axiom “History teaches us we don’t learn from history”?
You know, you could say that. [laughs] We tend to make similar mistakes over and over again, so I’m not sure we learn those lessons even when we know that. I think Americans, especially with their frontier spirit and the concept of progress, we tend to fail to look at the past as models for the future because we don’t trust it.
I grew up in the south end of Hartford in the 1950s, and my grandfather, who lived in the same building as us, was born in the late 19th century in Sicily. His world—they didn’t have automobiles, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, they basically lived kind of like Julius Caesar did, except they had the railroad. I remember growing up, I had a hard time understanding, “How can he help me understand my problems growing up in a city during the 1950s?” because he came from another world, and now I look back on that and I say, “Gee whiz, I wish I had taken more advantage of talking to my grandfather because he would’ve given me insight that I could not appreciate as a young man.”
Even when we learn about history, we make the same mistakes sometimes because we don’t appreciate the solutions of the past as being applicable in today’s world, although I’d argue they are.
What exactly does the state archaeologist do?
One of the nice things about my job is that every day is different—I don’t have a normal week or sometimes even a normal month! My position is mandated by state legislation in terms of responsibilities, so my teaching of anthropology at UConn is kept to a minimum. My real job is historic preservation. I work with all 169 state municipalities on land-use issues—subdivisions, shopping malls—things that might affect archaeological sites, so the majority of what I do is on-the-ground preservation before those sites are destroyed. I also work very closely with the medical examiner’s office and police departments whenever human skeletal remains are uncovered. I maintain an office of archaeology, review development projects and am with the State Museum of Natural History and Archaeology at UConn, so I also do public outreach. I do more teaching in a town office or a construction-site trailer than I do at the university itself. I wear a lot of hats.
Where’s the line between archaeology and forensic police work?
As archaeologists, we’ve developed skills in how to get from a skeleton the age and sex, degree of exercise, degree of nutrition, cause of death, trauma, diseases . . . That old saying “Dead men tell no tales” is absolutely wrong. Dead men tell a lot of tales. We’ve been trained to do that for historic reconstruction, but it’s applicable in the modern world in terms of forensic analysis, trying to determine identification when all we have left of a victim is skeletal remains. We’re trained to get the most minute piece of bone out of the ground and analyze it.
Is there a cut-off in terms of how old something is in regard to you examining it?
Actually what we use is the criteria based on the National Register of Historic Places so that I have the authority for the preservation of archaeological sites that are 50 years old or more. The scary part of that is that 12 years ago, I became eligible for the national register myself. [laughs] In fact, sometimes I wonder if you’re older than the sites you dig. Fifty years is the criteria.
Most important tool an archaeologist uses?
Oh, the archaeologist himself. We have various analytical techniques we can use in the laboratory, we have certain tools that we use for recovery in the field, but in the end, I think it’s the archaeologist themselves who are the main instrument because the development of hypotheses, the development of solutions for problems that come up out in the field in recovery, or is potentially analytically accessible and practical in a particular case. We have all these tools, but it’s the archaeologist themselves who are the most important instruments. Individually and collectively, and I should emphasize collectively because we don’t work individually, we work in multidisciplinary teams, we bring in other scientists, we work collectively to solve problems. It’s gotten to the age, with the scientific specialization, the concept of the Renaissance Man is gone. There’ll never be another Thomas Jefferson who delved into a billion different things. It’s so specialized today that we, as individuals, can’t have all the knowledge that we need to bring to understand. We need to bring in and collaborate with other scientists. But that’s a lot of fun, by the way, to bring another specialist from other fields and have them work with you, from historians to biologists to geologists to geographers. It’s so cool to work with others to solve a problem, even if the problem is archaeological.
What was it like to be involved in the History Channel investigation of what was purported to be Hitler’s skull?
It was a unique situation. When I was in Moscow examining the cranial vault fragment that was believed to be Hitler, I was like “Wow, could I be holding his skull in my hand?” I guess my first impulse was to crush it! But I figured I wouldn’t make it out of the country. [laughs] It was obvious upon initial examination, and then later verified by DNA, that it was not him. I recognized right away that there were problems with what I had expected, knowing the historical background and biological factors of the man and his death, things that didn’t quite match up. And of course, the DNA demonstrated that the skull cap was that of a woman, so it was clearly not Hitler. One for the memoirs, I suppose.
Any theory on what happened?
My theory is that he didn’t escape; he clearly died in the bunker. He was a very sick man throughout his time in the bunker. There’s good evidence that he had not only at least one nervous breakdown, but also suffered a stroke while in the bunker. The idea that he could’ve escaped, at that late date, to me, isn’t very practical because of the information we had.
What happened, I think, is that when he and Eva Braun committed suicide. He put a bullet into his temple, she took cyanide—there is some suggestion from the Russians, when they did the original autopsies, that when they entered and found the bodies that he may have glass in his mouth, indicating that he may have had a cyanide tablet in his mouth as well as have pulled the trigger. Basically, his instructions to the German soldiers was that as soon as they committed suicide was to take their remains and completely cremate them to ashes, totally unrecognizable. Of course, he was afraid of what the Russians would do to his body—kind of like what the Italians had done to Mussolini even after he was dead, stringing him up in a local plaza. He didn’t want that. The idea was to cremate them to ashes, but that was not practical because when they brought the remains out of the bunker and into the vice chancellory garden, they doused them with petroleum and set the fire—there’s a lot of fluid in the human body and the fire, because it was outdoors, kept going out. They had to keep restarting it, meanwhile, the Russians were literally at the door, so they had to hastily bury them to hide them. Instead of a full cremation what you had was like—god forbid—someone who was in a house or car fire. There were forensically identifiable features when the Russians finally found the bodies, only about two days after they entered Berlin. They did a complete autopsy, and matching up dental records, made a positive identification of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and others who had died in and around the bunker.
The problem was that when the Russian pathologist sent the data to Moscow, Stalin completely rejected it, was completely upset. The public word was that they hadn’t found Hitler, they didn’t know where he was—as a matter of fact, Stalin eventually accuses the United States of hiding him out. For whatever reason, Stalin wasn’t happy with the report, so as a result, a year later he put together a commission to go back to Berlin and collect new evidence—mostly evidence that would support his ideas—that’s when they found, a year later, this cranial vault fragment. Even though they didn’t publicly say this, they maintained the remains at the Russian federal archives. While they never said it was Hitler, they certainly believe it. Of course, we were able to show it was not.
But yeah, he died in the bunker. There’s no question about it. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Russian government admitted they had found the bodies, and at that time, before anybody could do anything, they then finished the cremation and disposed of the ashes into the Elbe River. He’s washed away, so to speak. No question in my mind he died in the bunker. Because the skull plate was not him, doesn’t mean that he didn’t die in the bunker, it simply means what they recovered was not him.
Anyhow, a long, complex story, but an important story in human history. I think because of the global media attention—of course there was great interest in what happened in May of 1945—it made it an international story.
Not an international story, but last year saw the exhumation of the Old Leather Man, which you were also involved with.
I’m a big fan of the Old Leather Man. I think I first read about him twentysomething years ago, and I’ve always been fascinated with his story. You know what I love about the story? Back then, he was this man who was considered to be a tramp—we’d probably call him homeless today—and yet even though we don’t know who he was in terms of his name, we do remember him. I bet there are very few people in Connecticut today who could tell me the name of political and business leaders in the late 19th century and yet they remember the Old Leather Man. It’s just a compelling story.
What had happened in that case is that the Ossining Historial Society, which is in charge of Sparta Cemetery where he’s buried—not too far from Sing Sing Prison, by the way. He was buried in an unmarked grave with a stone that had been put in about 70 years after he died, but not at the time of the burial, so we didn’t really know if he was there or not. The problem was that the grave was in the corner of the cemetery, very close to Route 9, which is a highly traveled area. People congregate there at the grave and it became a safety issue. What they really wanted to do is remove his remains to another portion of the cemetery to make it safer and to put up a decent monument to him and to commemorate his story. Many, many people go to visit, interested in his story.
I was very interested in assisting in the project because I thought if we could find some remains, we could do some forensic analysis that might tell us a bit more about the man. It’s not that we would learn his name most likely, it’s not that we would remove all the mysteries of the Leather Man, but what I hoped at least was that we could eliminate the falsehoods that have been associated with his legend and maybe get some biological insight into the man that may have been helpful in terms of interpreting his life. In other words, get to know him better. But never would we be able to get enough date to eliminate the total mystery of the Old Leather Man.
I was intrigued by it and we worked together. Unfortunately, or fortunately—I say because there were people who didn’t want us to do this—there were no remains left. The remains had totally disintegrated into the ground. Connecticut and New York have very acidic soil and that means that organic remains do not last long. I’ve even seen a burial recently as 1906 that had nothing left but coffin hardware. All the organics had completely dissolved into the soil. Ashes to ashes, so to speak. And that’s what we found with the Leather Man. So in symbolism, we moved the soil that was him and buried it in the new plot, but unfortunately there were no remains to work with.
Just intrigued by the whole story and legend of the Leather Man, and it would’ve been great to contribute. Again, not solving the entire mystery, you know, but understanding him better and being able to tell his story more accurately.
Is it okay that some things remain mysteries?
Absolutely. I think the whole intrigue of it is mystery. But when an opportunity avails itself to learn more, gosh, we’re scientists. We work in a humanistic perspective, we understand what we’re doing with the remains of humans, and we treat them with the utmost respect.
The problem with total mysteries is that we make up stories, we make up legends, we make up things. I suppose that’s fine if you want to take it from folklore or legends. But to me, gosh, wouldn’t it be so much better to know reality and what really happened maybe? Again, we’re not going to solve everything. Mysteries are fine, but they also lead to falsehoods and misconceptions, and we make up stories. I guess that does have a place. But reality, what people’s behavior really was and how we can better understand that behavior, to me, that’s the challenge.
What’s the most unusual item you’ve dug up?
We came in to do a rescue operation at a Colonial-era cemetery in the eastern part of the state that had been uncovered by sand and gravel mining. We found one individual who, instead of lying anatomically in the grave, had been totally rearranged—the thigh bones had been uprooted and crossed over the chest, the chest had been violated and the cranium had been deliberately decapitated. When we found it, we were like, “Yikes! What are we looking at?” It led us to the concept of vampirism. That is to say that back in the 18th century people did not understand germ theory and had no idea how disease spread. So when you had an epidemic like tuberculosis, which ravaged New England families without any real good science in terms of what was going on, one belief was that those who had died of the disease had remained undead in their graves and were capable of leaving those graves to feed on living family members, and hence spread the disease. As a result, the dead had to be put to further rest, so they went back into those graves, rearranged them or burned the heart if it was still present.
Looking at it contemporarily, I think understanding that behavior is important because I think today we’re not far removed from that, even with our great scientific technology. What I mean by that is that a few years ago there was a scare about swine flu, if there were a pandemic outbreak, we would do everything that the scientific community told us—wash our hands, cover our mouths—however, if people were dying and continued to die, then there would be a number of people who would be doing things out of the ordinary to protect themselves and their families. Things that would not be rational behaviors but out of sheer fear, but would do it to save themselves and their loved ones. We have the benefit of science, but should that fail, people would be doing other things. We’re not far removed from the 19th century. These people acted out of fear and not out of horror or how we would view it today in the 21st century. This was a public health issue, they were frightened and they were trying to save loved ones, and this was worth a try especially when the doctors and churches weren’t helping them. I look at us today, I say god forbid if something similar happened to us today, even with our medical technology, who knows what we would try to save our loved ones.
It’s a historic story, but I always try to make the connection to the contemporary.
That’s the story of the Jewett City vampires, right?
Exactly! In fact, the graveyard accidentally uncovered by the gravel operation was two miles from there. So when we were looking and trying to figure out what the heck we were looking at in the ground—we had this archaeological anomaly—that’s when we first heard the story of the Jewett City vampires and everything fell into place. We worked very closely with a folklorist and historian by the name of Michael E. Bell from Rhode Island, who researched the vampire belief in New England for many years before we got involved. What was significant about our work was that we found the first hard archaeological evidence of that activity.
By the way, the guy who had been arranged in the grave, when we did the forensic analysis, had tuberculosis.
What’s the most unusual item you’ve dug up?
Oh my gosh, the vampire story has got to be the most unusual. When I got involved in that, I had no clue about vampirism other than popular movies and books. Since then, I’ve become this expert, although I wouldn’t really say that. It’s gotten me into a different thought world that I hadn’t really fully explored. I don’t think it gets more unusual than that.
Have you ever discovered something during an excavation and been like, “Uh oh. This is a problem”?
Not so much “This is a problem,” as much as “This is not what I expected.” I think when you go into the field at a site, you’ve done the background research, the time period you’re going to be investigating, the cultural traditions . . . every site you go into with the theoretical and other expectations. Sometimes however, you get what you get, as we say. Sometimes the archaeological record can throw you a curve ball and that’s kind of cool. Like with the “vampire.” Here we are rescuing the cemetery that was affected by the mining operation, to move remains in a professional, respectful way, and do some analysis and have them buried in a new cemetery, and we were in the process of this when all of a sudden we were thrown this curve ball with this one burial which was not what we expected. So it leads you into further analysis. And that’s just got to be fun all the time. Like anything else, when you get the unexpected, now you have a new problem to solve and it keeps you on your toes and it’s great.
What is your dream archaeological discovery?
I’d love to find the remains of a mastodon with Native American stone-tool butcher marks. After the glaciers and the land opened up, we had large mammals here. We have six paleontological sites [in Connecticut] where the fossilized remains of mastodons have been recovered, but the sites were worked in the 19th century. I would love to make such a discovery now because it would involve the very first people who came here over 10,000 years ago. To me, that would be really intriguing.