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What to do with the giant mystery dirt pile in my basement?
August 18, 2011 7:18 AM   Subscribe

The Mystery of the Basement Burial Mound — sticks and stones, bricks and bones (and now cat poop!): what do I do about a giant pile of rocks and debris in my basement?

We just recently (April) bought a house, and in one corner of the basement is a sort of raised alcove that is about half-filled with dry, dusty dirt and what, after a bit of digging, appears to be large animal (I hope!) bones along with bricks and rocks. The alcove is probably around 3 feet wide and at least 8 feet deep.

I was not overly concerned about this giant pile of dirt (I was going to get to it eventually, but after I'd taken care of other things around the house).

The snag is, our two kitties have taken it upon themselves to begin using it as one giant litterbox. So now we've made the basement temporarily off-limits until we can figure out how to get rid of all the dirt and debris.

There are a couple of considerations before I just grab a shovel and dig in myself, however:
The bones
There are a lot of bones in this pile of dirt. Of course they're not human -- of course! -- but what if they are?? These are large bones; not the bones of a chicken or even a pet. I'm really wondering what bones are even doing in a pile of dirt in the basement (directly beneath the kitchen, no less). There's also a wee bit of sanitary concerns as who knows what else might turn up.
Sewage pipes
The city of Philadelphia installed a giant plastic sewage pipe that cuts right through the alcove. It rests on the pile of dirt. I am concerned that digging the dirt out will cause the pipe to move and perhaps even break, spilling yucky sewage all over the basement.
Mystery contents
Who knows what else could be in this pile? It's an old house. Could there be stuff that is dangerous/toxic in there, like lead dust or worse?
I'm thinking it might be better to bring in the professionals on this one, but I'm not even sure who a "professional" would be in these circumstances, or what they would do.
posted by Deathalicious to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you are seriously worried about what the remains are, I'd recommend contacting the police department & asking them to take a look.
posted by Ys at 7:34 AM on August 18, 2011


Well, for the bones, I think you might possibly be required by law to get them checked out. 311 or the non-emergency police number might be good. Google or 311 for the sewage company. My advice- pros ASAP.
posted by Jacen at 7:35 AM on August 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


It sounds like a crawlspace. Don't move the dirt, especially if there is a sewer pipe supported by it. As long as it doesn't get disturbed by animals then it shouldn't be a concern. Block access with a wooden frame built of 2x4s and chicken wire or hardware cloth or even plywood. Make the barrier removable in case a plumber has to get back there.
posted by JJ86 at 7:42 AM on August 18, 2011


This sounds very odd. I'd definitely have the bones ID'ed, if for no other reason than to assuage my personal curiosity.*

*Ok so personally I wouldn't have bought a house with a pile of bones in the basement.
posted by odinsdream at 7:51 AM on August 18, 2011


Yes. 311. I believe the term you might use is "biohazard."

(Is it too soon to ask for an update? You are going to tell us what the bones belong to when you find out, right?? Do you think the bones went in before or after the sewage pipe? If it was already there, why did the municipal workers ignore what seems to be an obvious grave? Hm. So curious! *slinks out from behind the wheel of the Mystery Machine Van and goes back to work*)
posted by jbenben at 7:55 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


That is creepy as hell and there would be no shame in calling for a professional to deal with it.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:02 AM on August 18, 2011


You say it's an old house. How old? 50 years? 100 years? 200 years? Piles of bones, even large ones, could mean very different things depending if they date back to the 1950's than if they date back to the 1850's.

Also, a photo of the "mound," and perhaps of the bones, could be helpful here.
posted by dersins at 8:02 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is your basement finished, half finished or unfinished? Like, you have a concrete floor and bare framing overhead or is it all dirt (a crawlspace?). It sound to me like the city may have cut out the slab when they installed the sewer line. A local, licensed plumber can help you assess the situation and what can or cannot be done. My most charitable assessment of the bones is that an animal got in there and died and some lazy person figured they could just bury it down there and forget about it. But if it's a basement with a slab used for storage or laundry that seems....crazy. Did your inspector make any comments about this dirt pile. Call the cops on this. I would be surprised if it's human for lots of reasons. But how can you sleep at night not knowing. Keep yourself and the kitties out of there until you get the okay.

And please update!
posted by amanda at 8:05 AM on August 18, 2011


Didn't your home inspector say anything about this when you bought the house?
posted by desuetude at 8:06 AM on August 18, 2011


we need pictures of the bones!
posted by genmonster at 8:08 AM on August 18, 2011


This sounds like a horror movie! You are a shockingly calm individual and I am impressed, but am also nth-ing a call to the professionals.
posted by AmandaA at 8:09 AM on August 18, 2011


also: epohysterical
posted by genmonster at 8:09 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is an unfinished basement with a concrete floor and bare framing. The alcove is also concrete on the bottom (it is raised around a foot from the floor).

When we first saw the crawlspace, it was just dirt. It wasn't until I started digging out some of the dirt (to remove the cat droppings etc) that I started finding the bones. There aren't that many of them, and the dark spooky nature of the basement area may have enlarged them in my mind but as I said I think they're larger than chicken bones or the like.

I'll take a photo if I can.

Part of why we'd like to remove the dirt if possible is that once it's cleared out and (thooughly!) cleaned I'd like to repurpose that area as a root cellar. If removing the dirt is not at all possible I'd like at least to get rid of the bizarro debris there and at least get to the very back where the cats pooed (yes, of course they pooed in the very back of a barely accessible crawlspace. Where else where they supposed to do it?).
posted by Deathalicious at 8:31 AM on August 18, 2011


I guess I'm the only one here not totally surprised by this.

My grandparent's farmhouse was built in the 1850's, and we had a similar deal - a raised alcove/crawlspace underneath the kitchen which had a hardpack floor and then loose dirt and debris piled on top of the hardback. We found a large number of animal bones in the dirt and debris, including a pig skull.

Historic preservation's best guess was that the original builders of the house had just dumped trash under the kitchen (there was, in fact, evidence of a trapdoor if you looked carefully at the underside of the floor) in the winter, with the expectation that it would be moved outside when there was a thaw, or that someone had been trying (and failing) to fill in the original root cellar.

How old is the house? Are you sure the floor of the alcove is actually concrete and not just a really solidly hardpacked dirt (or maybe a stone slab)?

If your house is pre-1900 I honestly wouldn't be too concerned about the bones. (Although....) I would be more concerned about the support for the sewage pipe. You'll likely need to have someone (a plumber? the city?) come in and build a support for the pipe before you start pulling out the dirt.

Then, after you've done that, I'd hire someone like servicemaster to come in and just clean out the crawlspace and haul it away. If yours is anything like ours, it's been sitting there for more than a hundred years and likely doesn't have anything truly toxic in it.
posted by anastasiav at 8:40 AM on August 18, 2011


My parents' house in Lancaster County has that weird raised alcove thing, and it was built in the 1990s. The bones part is creepy, but the existence of the alcove is not (although I've never seen it anywhere else). FWIW, they have a sheet of heavy plastic stapled over it, which might help keep the kitties away.
posted by cabingirl at 8:53 AM on August 18, 2011


The house is definitely post-1900 and in an urban environment.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:53 AM on August 18, 2011


Dealthalicious, what neighborhood are you in, is it a rowhouse, and what's the estimated age of the house?

A lot of rowhomes here didn't originally have permanent kitchens -- shed kitchens were used in the backyard. So those bones could've been from a pig/sheep/cow/other tasty animal. Ditto the possibility that trash was dumped under the kitchen. Does it seem like just earth from when the basement was dug out, or does it seem like dirt that accumulated over time?

Not sure if it's the Streets Department or the Water Department that handles those city pipes, but you definitely need to contact them before you do anything around the pipe.
posted by desuetude at 10:09 AM on August 18, 2011


Put a tarp over it and stake it down.

Keep the bones you have the makings of a great spooky story.
posted by pianomover at 10:09 AM on August 18, 2011


It would be interesting/helpful to know how the structure of the house relates to this alcove. Was it ever outside the foundation? e.g. could the foundation have jutted out for a wing that was 8x15 feet wide, which was later extended to 8x18 feet wide to match exterior walls with the rest of the house, incorporating part of the outside yard that did not have full basement walls? That would point to a scrap heap or a shed kitchen as possibilities. If there is any wall surrounding the alcove be sure that by disturbing it you won't be affecting the structural integrity of the basement walls.

I wouldn't be that concerned about the sewer pipe, as PVC should be structurally sound if supported properly. You may want to see if it's held to the ceiling by any J-hooks or steel straps or the like. If you do remove the dirt, be sure to check with the city as far as building code requirements for such support.

In my 1858 house, which was expanded twice and had a wing rotated at least once, the kitchen extends half over a crawlspace when the house expanded larger than the foundation, so to speak. During the renovation of the kitchen we dumped pretty much all the old, unsalvageable plaster and lath into the crawlspace, and similar "trash in place" methods were common in historic times as well -- practically the same thing was done in the four-unit rental we own, which only has a partial basement and crawlspaces filled with all manner of debris. I don't know that I'd suspect human bones unless I found enough for a whole skeleton or something unmistakeable like a human skull or jawbone.

As for lead, well, there are new rules about lead. If there were ever peeling lead paint above this crawlspace, or any of the debris looks painted, yes it might have lead contamination. As a homeowner in your own home, you have exemption from following most of the contractor or landlord rules, but you should still protect yourself and your kids. Get a lead test kit at your hardware store and it should tell you roughly the level of contamination. There are two levels of legal issues here -- renovation with care not to contaminate the house, yourself, or anyone else; and abatement of a known hazard such as a pile of contaminated dirt.

In the end it may be easiest to simply throw up a wall.
posted by dhartung at 11:46 AM on August 18, 2011


Dealthalicious, what neighborhood are you in, is it a rowhouse, and what's the estimated age of the house?

W. Mount Airy. It's a twin. The age of the house is uncertain, I've heard 1900-1920s.

A lot of rowhomes here didn't originally have permanent kitchens -- shed kitchens were used in the backyard. So those bones could've been from a pig/sheep/cow/other tasty animal. Ditto the possibility that trash was dumped under the kitchen.

This is definitely a possibility. The area lies under our present kitchen, but that kitchen is an extension to the house. So the alcove would have been right behind the old kitchen, I guess. Now that I think of it, the alcove must be the original location of the stairs down to the basement (and like most houses on the block, the entrance to those stairs would have been a cellar door like this)!
posted by Deathalicious at 1:36 PM on August 18, 2011


My basement also has flooding, so right now photos won't be possible. I'll post an update as soon as there are developments.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:02 PM on August 18, 2011


I wouldn't be that concerned about the sewer pipe, as PVC should be structurally sound if supported properly. You may want to see if it's held to the ceiling by any J-hooks or steel straps or the like. If you do remove the dirt, be sure to check with the city as far as building code requirements for such support.

Should be, sure. That sort of logic is not a given 'round these parts, I'm afraid.

1900-1920 is probably a decent age estimate, I'd assume the early side. (According to the OPA website, my house is from 1915. Buried in the deed is a reference to a 1911 survey that verifies this address. Searching the archives of the Philly Inquirer, I find a 1905 reference to my address.)
posted by desuetude at 11:01 PM on August 18, 2011


I spoke with a neighbor and he recommended contacting L&I. I'll post more an update when there is one.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:07 AM on September 1, 2011


Well, you should get some sort of good story out of that.
posted by desuetude at 10:10 PM on September 1, 2011


The story continues to unfold! Finally got around to calling L&I (we had a baby, after all) and they forwarded the issue to the Police. So an officer is on his/her way now, as I type this, to check out the mystery bones.

How exciting!
posted by Deathalicious at 10:52 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify, my wife and I had a baby; I did not have a baby with L&I.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:53 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Congrats! Also glad I checked this thread again!
posted by Canageek at 6:31 AM on October 4, 2011


So the officer stopped by yesterday afternoon. He does not think I have human remains in my basement. What a relief.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:01 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


So the officer stopped by yesterday afternoon. He does not think I have human remains in my basement. What a relief.

Did he have any opinions as to what sort of remains they actually are?
posted by desuetude at 7:34 PM on October 4, 2011


He says petrified wood. I say, still bone but probably not human.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:03 PM on October 4, 2011


He thinks you have a pile of large pieces of petrified wood buried in your basement in W. Mount Airy.

Well, that's obviously the most plausible theory. Um.
posted by desuetude at 1:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The cop is clearly in on it.

(Congrats on your new baby!)
posted by amanda at 7:09 AM on October 6, 2011


He says petrified wood.

CASE CLOSED no wait this kinda looks like a tibia see the I SAID CASE CLOSED
posted by odinsdream at 7:16 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


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