WASHINGTON -- When archaeologists excavated 18 graves at a 3-century-old Calvert County plantation a few years ago, they had no headstones, no diaries, no letters and no church records. Nothing to tell the stories of those long-vanished colonists.
Now Douglas H. Ubelaker, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, has made the bones talk.
By studying wear and tear and the shapes and sizes of the bones, Dr. Ubelaker has produced grim snapshots of life on a mid-17th century Maryland settlement: of shoulders strained by heavy lifting and hauling, of clay pipes puffed habitually through clenched teeth, of bones made brittle by disease, of malnutrition and early death.
"The general picture I have is that, particularly for adults, it was a very hard life," said Dr. Ubelaker, the curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Ubelaker, 46, has seen a lot of untimely death. As the FBI's top bone consultant, he has handled close to 500 forensic cases -- identifying remains, helping determine the cause of death and matching wounds to weapons.
He recently spent two weeks outside Waco, Texas, helping recover and study the scorched skeletons of some of the 86 people thought to have died in the fire at the Branch Davidian cult compound. (He declined to talk about the case.)
Dr. Ubelaker's passion is archaeology, and last year he was asked to study the remains found at Patuxent Point.
The contents of those graves represent an important chunk of history. Scientists have studied fewer than 125 skeletons of American colonists from the 1600s, said Douglas Owsley, also a Smithsonian anthropologist. And the 19 remains at Patuxent Point, the oldest Colonial cemetery excavated in Maryland, are among the best preserved.
Julie King, an archaeologist with the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum of St. Leonard, approached Dr. Ubelaker, who said he was quick to accept the scholarly challenge.
"I like taking the tools of science and trying to squeeze as much as I can out of the bones," he said.
The plantation probably was occupied from 1658 to 1685, Dr. King said. Most of the remains found at the cemetery, which was excavated in 1988 and 1989 to make way for homes, are thought to predate the remains in three lead coffins in St. Mary's City.
Those expensive coffins, opened last November, are thought to contain the skeletons of Colonial Gov. Philip Calvert, who died in 1682, and members of his family.
The Patuxent Point colonists were people of modest means -- some were buried in rough wooden coffins, others in simple shrouds secured by brass pins. "They were sort of their [the Calverts'] poor country cousins," Dr. Ubelaker said.
In a 104-page preliminary report completed this month, he detailed the "harsh life" of the colonists, most of whom are thought to have been indentured servants from England.
The upper bodies of the men showed the strains of heavy physical labor. Many of the colonists -- men, women and even a 13-year-old child -- smoked clay pipes habitually, leaving tobacco stains and circular wear marks on their teeth. About a third of the colonists had suffered broken bones.
Osteoporosis, a bone disease marked by decreasing density and increasing brittleness, was widespread, posing a puzzle for archaeologists. Today, osteoporosis is a disease of aging. But the colonists buried at Patuxent Point died very young -- the average age for the men was 31. For women, it was 36.
Dr. Ubelaker suspects the bone disease may have been triggered by periods of starvation.
If so, he wrote in his report, that hunger could have "produced apathy, lethargy, memory loss and behavioral problems, especially among the young." Famine, he wrote, "may have affected the agricultural and domestic activities and potentially jeopardized the settlement."
The plantation was part of Hodgkin's Neck, a 100-acre tract of land acquired by Capt. John Odber in 1658. A plantation house -- perhaps for relatively wealthy tenant farmers renting land from the captain -- was built at the point, not far from the cemetery. For unknown reasons, Dr. King said, the site was abandoned about 1685.
Captain Odber, meanwhile, died in 1667 on the Eastern Shore, killed by Native Americans.
None of the names of the colonists who lived at Patuxent Point is known. But Dr. Ubelaker's research has yielded miniature portraits of many of them. In a few cases, he and Dr. King have dug up evidence of concern and cruelty.
A 5-foot-9-inch black teen-ager, clay pipe in hand, already showed the scars of a hard life of pulling, pushing or shoveling. But the muscular young man -- the only black person found buried at Patuxent Point -- apparently was treated with some measure of equality.
His remains were found in a cluster with those of three whites. He was thought to have been an indentured servant, rather than a slave. He was the only one buried with a personal possession -- his pipe. None of the others had anything but clothing. Not even buttons were found.
"As far as we could tell, he was treated in the same way as others there," Dr. Ubelaker said.
least two colonists may have been former textile workers. Dr. Ubelaker noted that a brass token found at the Patuxent site can be traced to Ilminster, a textile-producing town in western England that suffered hard times in the 17th century. A large number of Ilminster's workers emigrated to the Chesapeake Bay region.
The two had tiny grooves worn in their teeth, apparently where they often held needles or thread. One was a 5-foot-7-inch, pipe-smoking man with bad teeth and a hefty frame. The other was an ill-fated mother buried with her infant.
Buried facing west
The supposed seamstress, believed to have been between 26 and 32 years old, appears to have been denied a Christian burial.
The remains of what may have been her near-term fetus, or a newborn baby, were found in her pelvic region. Their grave was 40 feet away from the others. And unlike the rest of the colonists, she was buried with her head to the east and her feet to
By Christian tradition, Dr. King said, the dead were buried with their heads to the west and feet to the east -- permitting them to rise up and face the morning sun on Judgment Day, when the dead are resurrected.
"People don't just do these things," Dr. King said. "There's usually some embedded meaning in them."
She has a possible explanation. In the 17th century, she said, pregnant women were considered tainted by sin. After giving birth, they had to undergo a ritual called "churching" to be accepted back into society .
"One author said that a woman who died in childbed before being 'churched' would be refused Christian burial," Dr. King said.
Perhaps, she said, that's what happened to the young woman in the lonely grave.
There are a few other puzzles. Eight of the 19 remains were of children age 14 and under. But children were thought to be rare in Colonial Maryland. Indentured servants were not permitted to have children.
Relatively few women lived in the American Colonies in the 1600s. But among the 11 colonists 15 and older, five were women.
Dr. Ubelaker and Dr. King caution that the people buried at Patuxent Point may not have been a representative sample of those who lived and worked there.
After serving the period of their indenture, servants who survived would leave. "A lot of people at the site lived there, then left and never got buried there," Dr. King said.
She said there are no plans to rebury the remains and hopes they will stay in the state's archives to help future scholars decipher Maryland's past.
Felled by disease?
Dr. Ubelaker couldn't pinpoint the cause of death of any of the 19. But the remains show that no one died of trauma: No one was shot, stabbed or hit over the head.
Further tests are scheduled for the bones, including one to determine lead levels.
In most cases, Dr. Ubelaker said, the cause of death was probably infectious disease such as smallpox, malaria or cholera. (No one can say, he said, because a fatal illness usually doesn't linger long enough to affect bone growth.)
He speculated that in 17th-century England, children were plentiful and may have had to stand in line when food was doled out in poor households. In the Colonies, by contrast, children were scarce, and perhaps treasured.
Can 300-year-old bones really tell us how much people once loved their children?
Dr. Ubelaker said he tries not to forget that he is studying the skeletons of people who had thoughts and feelings like our own.
"I never divorce myself from the notion that these are people, and we have to remain sensitive to the human condition they represent," he said.