By Courtney Dentch
Several human bones dating back more than 100 years were found underneath a Queens Village playground last week while workers were replacing a dry well at the site.
The bones were buried under Wayanda Park at 217th Lane and Hollis Avenue and are believed to belong to a time when the park served as a potter’s field for the township of Jamaica.
The city medical examiner confirmed that the bones are human and at least a century old, said spokeswoman Ellen Borakove. The workers unearthed a skull, a jaw, vertebrae, a rib bone and what Borakove described as an unidentified “long bone,” but it was not clear if the bones belonged to the same person, she said.
The bones were found while workers were excavating to replace a catch basin on the site as part of the playground replacement, a spokeswoman for the city Parks Department said. The discovery was made at about 11 a.m. Friday and work was halted immediately, police said.
The park was known to be a burial ground when it was first built in the 1910s, according to the historical sign posted at the park. As far back as 1844, the 2.14-acre site was one of three potter’s fields in Queens, before the borough joined the city, said Jim Driscoll, of the Queens Historical Society. Paupers, drifters, criminals and others who were refused burial in “white” cemeteries were buried here in graves marked with wooden stakes, he said.
The site was abandoned in 1898 when the five boroughs consolidated to form New York City, and area residents began using the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island, Driscoll said.
The community appealed to the city to make the “desolate” cemetery a park, a request which was approved by the city Board of Estimate in 1908, according to the park’s sign.
“That was not an unusual thing for the city to do at that time,” Driscoll said. “They had to do something with the land so they decided to use them for playgrounds or parks.”
The bodies were never disinterred, and city law prohibits construction projects on the site that would disturb the remains, such as digging too deep or laying foundation, Driscoll said. The city also is required to maintain and protect the land.
“This was done with the understanding that that didn’t seem to them to be too disrespectful to the people who were buried there,” Driscoll said.
But residents who live next to the park disagree.
“Why is there a park there in the first place?” asked Fred Chijioke, who lives just yards from the park. “I don’t see why they didn’t see that the first time they built the playground.”
The medical examiner was continuing tests on the bones to determine sex, age, race and whether they belong to the same person, Borakove said. The Parks Department is working with the medical examiner’s office and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to decide what will happen at the site now, a spokeswoman for Parks said.
Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.