JACKSON — The University of Mississippi Medical Center is seeking an attorney general’s opinion on whether the state Department of Archives and History has authority over the medical center’s ability to relocate unmarked graves on its Jackson property.
Officials with that agency say they can already answer that question — they don’t have any authority.
The medical center found the graves last year while it was building roads. Mississippi State University archaeology faculty and students working with an outside archaeology firm exhumed 66 sets of remains. Another 40 graves were located in the 1990s.
After a survey with ground-penetrating radar, the medical center estimates at least another 932 graves remain, although the university said the number of unmarked graves is probably much greater.
Because of the graves, the medical center is building a $20 million, 1,000-space parking garage in a different location. Two other buildings planned for the area — the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge and the children’s justice center — are on hold.
But spokesman Jack Mazurak said the university still wants the future ability to remove the graves and develop the wooded land because its 164-acre campus is running out of space.
The graves likely are those of residents of the Mississippi State Insane Asylum, which was once located at the site.
Requesting the opinion earlier this week, the medical center says laws passed in 1973 and 1974 give it the authority to “rearrange or disinter, remove and reinter human remains” to a different location. But the medical center wrote that the archeologists it hired declared the unmarked cemetery as a location of “archaeological significance,” which could require a permit from the archives and history agency before relocation.
Under Mississippi’s antiquities law, agencies must notify the archives when planning work on a property, said Historic Preservation Division Director Jim Woodrick. But that doesn’t automatically give the agency power to block the work. Pam Lieb, chief archaeologist for the archives agency, said the medical center shouldn’t be worried.
“The Department of Archives and History doesn’t have any jurisdiction over that anyway,” Lieb said, He said the agency can only block relocation of graves belonging to Native Americans or in rare instances of high historical significance. She said only approval from a county coroner is usually needed to move a cemetery.
The university has said it cost $3,000 per grave to move bodies it found while building the road. It cited the possible expense of relocation as the reason it was withdrawing from plans to buy the Landmark Center office building in Jackson.
Lieb said the archives agency has recommended a less costly relocation approach that doesn’t involve using archaeologists.