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Human skull found at Mercer Island estate sale
It was just another day of business as usual for Chris Foss of Foss Appraisal Services as he prepared for an estate sale at the Mercer Island home of Dr. James W. and Karen Phillips, both deceased. Dr. Phillips died in 1998; his wife died about three months ago. They had no children.
A typical estate sale usually includes china, small collectibles, art, antiques and silver.
But as a customer strolled through the house, a human skull was discovered.
“It was just down in the basement,” said the couple’s executor and CPA, Cordell Almond. “I didn’t know he had this human skull.”
Dr. Phillips was an ear, nose and throat surgeon who practiced here for some time, he explained.
There is no federal law prohibiting an individual from having a human bone in their possession, but the state of Washington prohibits it. It is illegal to buy, sell and, in some cases, possess American Indian remains, according to federal law — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Foss assumed the doctor had the skull for medical purposes.
“This is the first skull we’ve had,” Foss said. “We get teeth (from time to time).”
Foss said one of the neighbors told him that Phillips was never one to throw anything out. He said his company researched the issue and saw there was no federal law against it, so it was his understanding they could sell it or donate it to a medical facility.
But once the anonymous tipster called the Mercer Island police, the skull was removed from the home. Detective Pete Erickson, who investigated the call, said most likely it was not a specimen that was evidence of a crime, and indeed it was not.
“I’ve had similar cases where I’ve had the odd human remains surface,” he said. He said some bones were found during a construction project in Renton.
The skull went from the MIPD to the King County Medical Examiner’s office, where it was determined not to be something for investigation. The next step for the skull was the State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. State physical anthropologist Guy Tasa, Ph.D., drove to Seattle from his office in Olympia to collect the skull, which had been placed in an evidence box.
“It’s non-forensic, so it’s not connected to a modern crime,” Tasa said. “I’ve concluded that it is non-native. We look at different characteristics, different features,” he continued. “Behavioral patterns can be determined from teeth.”
He said the skull looked pretty typical of a clinical specimen, which up until the ’90s, came primarily from India. He said India exported human skeletal remains until the practice was banned in the ’90s.
“Typically, relatives donated these things to science,” he said. “Once it’s no longer of scientific use, they are buried or cremated. The other option would be to return it to a medical community. Those are a few of the options that remain under Washington state law.”
Tasa said under law, his department must notify local tribes and cemeteries about what they have. If it had been the skull of a Native American, whatever tribe it belonged to would have five days to decide whether or not to take possession of the remains.
The skull will remain with the State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation until a disposition that is appropriate to state law is determined. Tasa said that since these specimens are getting harder and harder to get, he can probably find someone in the medical community who will be interested in it.