By Alex Bridges
Human skulls don't usually pop up when people go four-wheeling around the valley.
But Shenandoah County authorities say that happened earlier this week and now investigators have a mystery to solve. Lt. Tom Shelton with the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office said the agency has sent the skull to the state medical examiner for further examination.
A couple of people riding four-wheelers Sunday on private property outside Edinburg found a human skull near the intersection of Barbershop Road and Stony Creek Road, Shelton said.
"These individuals stumbled upon -- saw something that looked suspicious and they thought it was a rock," Shelton said. "They went to investigate it, to go look at it and that's when they discovered that it was actually a human skull."
The discoverers found the skull on a hillside approximately 50 yards from the nearest building on the private property. The partially buried skull had no teeth and was missing the jaw, Shelton said. The jaw is usually the "first thing that comes apart," Shelton added.
"It does have some age to it," Shelton said. "Of course, I can't speculate how old."
The skull also appears damaged, though the cause remains unclear. Shelton speculated that farm machinery could have damaged the skull by striking it. Animals might cause such damage by carrying the skull, but Shelton said the rest of the bones likely would still be near it. The four-wheelers also could have damaged the skull as they traveled on the property, Shelton said.
"They think it's interesting," Shelton said when asked about the property owners' reaction to the discovery. "Nothing suspicious there as far as the property owners. It just happens to be located on their property.
"Obviously if it was something that was newer we would all be a little more alarmed or concerned," Shelton added.
The property owners told investigators that their land attracts collectors with metal detectors searching for Civil War-era artifacts, Shelton said.
Authorities are not releasing information on the exact location the discoverers found the skull. Investigators plan to use cadaver-seeking dogs and look for any more bones linked to the skull, Shelton said.
"Of course, in our area there's always the possibility of an old family [cemetery] plot," Shelton said. "We haven't ruled that out."
The skull could date back to the Civil War era but authorities won't know without more information.
Asked whether investigators might link the skull to any missing person or other unsolved cases, Shelton said they've searched through available databases. He said there's only one missing-person case still open in Shenandoah County.
The skull has been sent to the Office of the State Medical Examiner for further study. The agency routinely sends such remains to an anthropologist who may determine the age and gender of the person, Shelton said. Authorities also hope an anthropologist can determine how old the skull is and how long the remains have been above ground and exposed to the elements. Bones in direct sunlight may age differently than remains buried or covered by shade.
"There's just so many factors," Shelton said. "It's hard just to look at it to determine how old it is."
The anthropologist also may determine the cause of the damage to the skull, Shelton said. The expert may tell investigators whether the damage occurred before or after the person died.
The skull's age may also spur the Sheriff's Office to ask for help from area Civil War experts to gather more information on the remains, Shelton said.
This isn't the first discovery of a human skull in the county. In 2010 some hikers found a skull near Signal Knob in the George Washington National Forest, Shelton recalled.
"We never were able to find out who that actually was, who that belonged to," Shelton said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org