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Former state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni next to the Moseley family burial chamber at First Church Cemetery in East Haddam. The tomb dates to 1790.

Nick Bellantoni, who was Connecticut’s state archaeologist from 1987 to 2014, confesses at the beginning of his new book that when he was called upon to be the first to enter the Moseley family tomb in East Haddam, something spooked him so badly that he let out a cry of terror, causing his assistants behind him to erupt in laughter.

“With the lamp balanced on my shoulder, I surveyed the tomb’s somber interior,” Bellantoni writes in And So the Tomb Remained: Exploring Archaeology and Forensic Science Within Connecticut’s Historical Family Mausolea (Oxbow Books). “Before me lay a scrambled mass of fragmented wooden coffins and commingled human skeletal remains littering the floor.”

When Bellantoni’s lamp illuminated a human skull, “the skeletal face peering at me,” he crouched down to hold the skull in his hands. “My extended fingers were within two inches of the cranial vault when it started to move, to sway!” he wrote. “The skull began to roll slowly side-to-side … ”

As Bellantoni muttered to himself, “I’ve never seen that before,” suddenly, “a mouse sprang out of the skull! I sucked in air and with a professional and scientific demeanor cried, ‘EEEEEEWOW!!!’ ”

When Bellantoni emerged from the tomb to tell his colleagues he was OK, that it was only a mouse, they laughed. One asked him: “Are you afraid of mice?” No, Bellantoni is usually fine with mice. But that scene is reminiscent of the moment when Indiana Jones, portrayed by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, peers down into a tomb, sees a slithering mass and exclaims: “Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!” (The intrepid explorer had a phobia about such creatures.)

Because of Bellantoni’s extensive tomb time, he’s been called “Connecticut’s real-life Indiana Jones.” But this is a sore topic for our guy. “What do you think about being compared to Indiana Jones?” I innocently ask Bellantoni outside the historic Pardee-Morris House in New Haven as he prepares to begin a public lecture for the New Haven Museum on his exploits. “No, no, no!” he tells me, waving his hands downward. “He wrecks things! He destroys things! He’s not really an archaeologist. Watching Indiana Jones and wanting to be an archaeologist is like watching Luke Skywalker and wanting to be an astronaut. It has nothing to do with reality.”

Bellantoni is dead serious about what he accomplished during his years as our state’s archaeologist. I also ask in a follow-up email if people sometimes remark that his work was morbid or gruesome. His reply: “Yes, I do get questions about gruesomeness, and I respond by saying that I do my work from a scientific and hopefully ethical perspective. As a human being studying the remains of other human beings, I do my best to be as respectful in treating those remains as I possibly can. I believe that what I do is allow the dead to tell their stories and be identified in history by archaeology and forensic science. It is important and preserves family and state history.”

Bellantoni begins his lecture by noting that after he retired he decided to write about his experiences. “I tried to write it for lay people. I want you to get a feel for the science behind it, the history, the people. I want you to feel like you’re in the tomb with me — whether you want to be or not!”

Roaming around on the Pardee-Morris lawn as he reminisces, Bellantoni exhibits a zest and passion for what he undertook. “My claim to fame — or infamy — is I’ve been in more historical tombs than maybe anybody. My entries into historic tombs were for purposes of contemporary restoration projects, criminal vandalism and sometimes even at the request of families wishing forensic identification of their ‘lost’ ancestors.”

“The reason I went into tombs,” he adds, “is not because I’m weird. It was my statutory responsibility as the state archaeologist.”

For his book, 109 pages long, Bellantoni highlights six particularly interesting tombs: that of Squire Elisha Pitkin at Center Cemetery in East Hartford; Gershom Bulkeley at Ancient Burying Ground in Colchester; Samuel and Martha Huntington at Norwichtown Cemetery in Norwich; Henry Chauncey at Indian Hill Cemetery in Middletown; Edwin Denison Morgan at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford; and Dr. Thomas Moseley at First Church Cemetery in East Haddam.

The tombs are above ground, some of them burrowed into the sides of hills. Bellantoni’s research showed that, by the time of the American Revolution, wealthy families were having these constructed. “Their desire may have been to be interred in burial vaults rather than have their wooden coffins laid into the earth in direct contact with crushing soil burden,” he writes.

But the families’ intent to preserve the remains didn’t always work out as planned. Over the centuries, Bellantoni tells his Pardee-Morris audience, “The coffins dry out, the sideboards pop and the people come tumbling down. When I got into the Pitkin tomb, their remains were in the center aisle.” He also notes it’s easier for vandals to break into an above-ground tomb than dig into underground graves.

After Bellantoni and his team painstakingly restored the Pitkin chamber, returning the bodies to their original resting places, members of the Pitkin family came from all over the world for the re-interment ceremony. Bellantoni says of their ancestors: “These were people lost to history. We had no idea who they were. A bunch of bones. But through forensic work we were able to identify them. That’s what’s important about this work — getting back to that heritage.” 

Investigating tomb raiders

Two of the six chambers Bellantoni writes about in his book, those of Edwin Denison Morgan in Hartford and Henry Chauncey in Middletown, involved criminal investigations because they had been broken into and vandalized. For the case of the Chauncey tomb, Bellantoni got a call from the Middletown police, telling him a human skull had been found behind a car wash in Cromwell. The police also told him there had been a break-in at a mausoleum at Indian Hill Cemetery. Could the two incidents be linked?

Bellantoni and his team went into the Chauncey chamber and were horrified to find that four vaults had been desecrated, including that of Lucy Alsop Chauncey. “Her whole body was still there — except for the skull,” Bellantoni recalls in his lecture. “It was her skull behind that car wash. We were able to match it up.”

Middletown police arrested a man who was involved with a satanic cult; he confessed that he had stolen the skull for use in a ritual. He was convicted and served prison time.

This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.