Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Buried Secrets: Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

"Most of these people lived their whole lives without anyone writing a word about them. The information we gather from their skeletons is, in essence, their legacy."

We believe we know our own history: the story of the Jamestown settlers anchors our study of American history, and third graders can recite the stories of John Smith and William Bradford, Ben Franklin and George Washington, Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher. But most of the stories of our earliest countrymen remain untold, the personal histories of many which have long gone unrecorded and therefore untold.

Noted science writer Sally Walker's Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Intermediate Grades) (Carolrhoda Books, 2009) opens that formerly closed book, not of the written record, but that literally "written in the bones" of ordinary people whose life stories are the amazing result of recent archaeological work--digs at the original James Fort site, the first inhabited area of Jamestown, and early colonial sites in the Chesapeake region.

Beginning with the discoveries of skeletal remains in grave sites dating to the Jamestown settlement of 1607-1609, Walker zooms in on a fascinating finding, a well-preserved skeleton recovered in 2005.

At the bottom of a carefully excavated pit, the rounded surface of a human skull gleamed with a yellow brown luster. The teeth shone white against the darker jawbone and the brownish soil below. The skeleton's leg bones stretched long and straight.... In contrast, the arms were chaotically bent. The left arm lay across the body, with the right flung up toward the shoulder.

It is known that straight arrangement of the leg bones indicates that the body was properly shrouded and laid to rest in the traditional decent burial, but the position of the arm bones and other grave site artifacts tell the rest of the story. Forensic examination--revealing unfused epiphyses in the long bones and unerupted wisdom teeth--shows the body to be that of a young teenager, no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. Unusually tall for his age (or for a male of any age at this time) at five feet eight inches, the boy's bones yet showed evidence of interrupted growth, bespeaking earlier poor diet or illness. Changes evident of anemia were seen in his skull, and his lower jaw showed a dental abscess so extensive that it most probably would have eventually caused his death. An arrowhead found near one leg bone and a broken collarbone which allowed the displacement of the arms during burial suggest that the boy was possibly fatally wounded in a skirmish with the neighboring Powhatans. Because of the morphology of the skull and because carbon 13 analysis showed little influence of a corn-based diet, the youngster would have been a recent European arrival, possibly as an indentured servant at the colony, and as the names of three boys appear among John Smith's records, the boy has been tentatively identified as one Richard Mutton, he being the only teenager whose name does not appear in records after 1607, born and baptized in London in 1593.

Walker focuses closely on other recoveries--the bones of the "Captain," presumed to be ship's captain Bartholomew Gosnold, who was apparently ceremoniously buried just outside James Fort with his staff of leadership; the well-known case of the three lead coffins found in St. Mary's City, believed to be those of the wealthy Lionel and Anne Copley and Lionel's granddaughter, whose social position did not prevent suffering or death from rickets (caused by the practice of swaddling infants which prevented exposure to sunlight), tooth loss, persistent infection, and, in the case of Anne Copley, doses of arsenic then believed to be curative; and finally the discovery of the well-preserved skeleton of an young African slave of approximately 18 years of age with a set of unusually near-perfect teeth (attributed to fluoride in the area's soil) and with an intact skull which lent itself to the first facial reconstruction of an African American of this period.
All of these cases, interred with obvious care, give us the uncanny experience of seeing them as real people, viewing Gosnold's own iron pike and Anne Copley's still beautiful hair, and looking into the face of the young slave woman as she must have looked in life.

But the most intriguing history mystery is that of what is known as the "body in the basement," or more officially as the "Leavy Neck Boy." This body was found crudely buried in an area beneath the floor of a farmhouse belonging to William Neale, in a space evidently used primarily for trash--chicken bones, broken tools, chamber pot emptyings, and anything else of no value to the household. Amazingly, this space also contained human remains, the hastily buried body of a boy. The grave, if it could be called that, was apparently scooped out with the shard of a earthenware milk pan and the body, legs folded, was crammed into this short space and shoved down with the same shard, as if to avoid touching the corpse. The body, that of a boy of approximately 15 years, barely five feet two inches in height, showed evidence of a wretched existence: twenty of his thirty teeth had deep cavities or abscesses, his spine showed evidence of injury from heavy lifting and tubercular changes, and his forearm and hand showed fractures which suggest defensive wounds from beatings at the time of death. All of these clues point to an indentured servant, already in compromised health when he arrived in the colonies, who was killed or allowed to die of injuries and furtively buried to conceal the facts of his death.

The dead do tell tales in the hands of skilled forensic anthropologists, and author Walker's Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Intermediate Grades) is both a riveting story of our earliest countrymen (and women) who are enabled to tell their own tales and a thorough introduction to the discipline and techniques of archaeology. Filled with intriguing and sometimes arresting photographs and blessed with extensive back matter--Sources, Timeline, Bibliography, Further Reading and Websites, and Index--this volume is both a scholarly study and a genuine page turner for middle and young adult readers.

A fascinating website devoted to the current Smithsonian Institution's exhibit Written in Bone can be found here or at

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  • I think you meant 1607. :)

    Interesting discoveries.

    By Blogger Dale, at 8:45 PM  

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