Examining the Lovely Bones of Jamestown

Posted February 6, 2009 at 3:36pm

When archaeologists discovered the site of a small 17th-century farm in rural Maryland back in 1991, they had no idea their finding would eventually uncover a nearly 400-year-old murder mystery.

But that is exactly what happened a decade after that initial discovery, when they were clearing out a large storage cellar and stumbled across the skelton of a male teenager.

The young man had been buried in a hastily dug shallow pit that was too small for his body. That pit was covered in clay, which then was covered with household trash, presumably to hide the remains.

Forensic scientists examined the remains of the young man to try to determine how he met his tragic fate. And, as physical anthropologist Karin Bruwelheide explained, the team discovered that the young man’s life was likely as difficult as his death.

“He had evidence of heavy physical labor, even though he was very young,” Bruwelheide said, speaking at a media preview of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake.”

The skeleton is among the 340 artifacts, objects and human bones featured in the exhibit, which tells the story of the first English settlers to come to the region — highlighting the hardship of their typically short lives through clues found in their skeletons.

“We get a sense of the challenges and hardships that they all endured, as well as the triumphs,” museum director Cristian Samper said.

Archaeologists believe the young man found in that cellar served as an indentured servant, pointing to analysis of his bones that show severe spinal trauma. Further analysis of the bones shows the diet of a recent immigrant, meaning he came to the American colonies perhaps just a year before his death, Bruwelheide said.

One of his fingers, his wrist and several of his ribs were broken, Bruwelheide said. The injuries appear to be defensive, making it likely the teen was a victim of violence.

“For whatever reason, his body was hidden in the cellar of this house and probably never heard of again,” Bruwelheide said.

While the identity of the teen (and that of his murderer) remains a mystery, other artifacts in the exhibit offer a look into fascinating life stories.

Take the bones of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. Never heard of him? Don’t worry — most people haven’t.

But he’s a key figure in early American history. Gosnold named Martha’s Vineyard (for his daughter) and Cape Cod (for the amount of fish that he found there) before landing in Virginia in 1607 to settle a new colony called Jamestown.

After helping build James Fort with fellow settler John Smith, Gosnold died of dysentery and scurvy. Buried in a coffin with a captain’s staff — quite elaborate for the time and circumstance — the explorer was mostly forgotten until archaeologists in 2005 tentatively confirmed that the recently discovered remains were Gosnold’s.

“He’s a very important person in terms of American history,” said curator Douglas Owsley, who heads the museum’s physical anthropology division. “But nobody knows him.”

Aside from telling Gosnold’s story, the Smithsonian team also is showing visitors what he is believed to have looked like. Using elaborate forensic facial reconstruction techniques, they’ve created a life-size model, taking pains to ensure the re-creation of the 5-foot-3-inch figure was as accurate as possible, down to his clothing.

“There’s a boatload of work in this reconstruction,” Owsley said. “It’s not a mannequin.”

The other stories presented are fascinating — and present a picture of early America that hasn’t ever been depicted.

Take Maryland aristocrat Anne Wolseley Calvert, whose remains and lead coffin (and two others that once held family members) are displayed.

The Calvert family’s status helped them weather the tough times — Anne is believed to have lived to be about 60, and her tooth decay indicates she probably had enough money to eat sugary foods. But she wasn’t immune from tragedy: Her bones also show a badly healed fracture in her right femur, meaning she walked with a pronounced limp.

And Smithsonian researchers believe that a 6-month-old infant buried in one of the lead coffins is the daughter of Philip Calvert and his second wife. Researchers think the baby died from rickets, caused by a vitamin D deficiency — a condition that doctors at the time had no idea existed.

“There’s nothing like that in the history books,” Owsley said.

For settlers without the riches of the Calverts, life was even tougher. Typical life in early colonial America was marked by heavy physical labor, forensic evidence shows.

Early African settlers — who typically were enslaved, even though the slave trade wasn’t yet established — suffered hardships. The bones of a girl between the ages of 17 to 19 show significant trauma in her vertebrae and evidence of heavy use of her muscles, which deeply pitted the bones of her upper body.

And there’s also “evidence of heavy tobacco use in colonists of all ages … even a child of about 11 or 12 years old,” Bruwelheide said. “We don’t want to promote smoking, but it did happen.”

Forensics also show that when times got tough, colonists ate anything they could — dogs, cats, rats and even their horses. “No self-respecting Englishman of that time would eat his horse, unless he was desperate,” Owsley said.

Aside from storytelling, the exhibit offers up some science. Smithsonian officials knew there would be an audience for the exhibit — the continued popularity of all those “CSI” shows proves Americans are interested, Owsley said — but the team wanted to make sure visitors knew how forensic science is done in the real world.

“When you’re a practitioner in this field, it’s sometimes hard to watch,” Owsley said.

The first two sections of the exhibit explain the details of the human skelton. Actual human remains, including those of a murder victim, a wheelchair-bound man, a teenager who suffered from cerebral palsy and a body builder, are displayed to explain to visitors how scientists determine a person’s cause of death.

The ultimate goal of the exhibit is to get more young people, especially teenagers, engaged in the field, Owsley said.

“This museum has been involved in forensic science before that term even existed,” he said. “In our field, there’s always room for a good person.”

“Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17-Century Chesapeake” runs through Feb. 6, 2011.