In new exhibit, dead men tell their tales

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - One display case holds the remains of a 15-year-old Anne Arundel County boy, a servant who apparently was murdered and stuffed into a hole scooped out of a dirt cellar.

Farther along are the bones of a strapping lad of 12 or 13, with evidence of a raging infection in his lower jaw. He was found in a hastily dug grave in Jamestown, Va., an Indian arrow in his thigh.

Even more telling is a baby, born into the wealth and power of Maryland's first family and interred in a costly lead coffin in St. Mary's City. The infant died a victim of severe malnutrition.

These are just some of the stories teased from human bones unearthed in recent decades from the earliest settlements of 17th-century Maryland and Virginia. They've been incorporated into a new forensic anthropology exhibit - Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake - at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Five years in the making, the exhibit draws on the resources of 20 institutions, including Anne Arundel County's Lost Towns Project, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland State Archives.

Displays explore the human skeleton, the science of forensic anthropology, and how its practitioners are using 21st-century scientific tools to read the stories of the hard lives and forgotten deaths of the earliest Americans as written in their bones.

"The skeleton is the great equalizer. It tells everyone's story," said Kari Bruwelheide, a curator of the exhibit. "We want to show the public that the skeleton is just a wealth of information, not only about death, but about life."

Life apparently came to an early and violent end for the Anne Arundel County boy. His skeleton was found in 2004 beneath what was once the dirt cellar of a 17th-century home near the Severn River, excavated by county archaeologist Al Luckenbach's Lost Towns Project team. A broken milk pan was buried with the victim, and the grave was covered with clay.

Based on wear patterns on the shard, Bruwelheide said, "we believe the pan was used to dig the hole and was buried with the remains to hide the evidence." The cellar later became filled with trash, and the house was abandoned about 1680.

The evidence of heavy labor on the boy's young frame, his poor dental health and chemical evidence in his bones led the Smithsonian's forensic team to conclude he was an indentured servant only recently arrived from England.

And he might have been abused, and perhaps murdered by his master - a persistent problem at the time. "Not only was the burial hidden," Bruwelheide said, "but he has a fractured wrist, which we believe is perimortem [occurring near the time of death] and is a defensive type of injury." The boy also suffered rib fractures about the same time.

Such abuses eventually prompted Virginia lawmakers to ban private burials of indentured servants, which could be used to hide fatal mistreatment.

The Jamestown boy's skeleton was found during archaeological excavations of the colony's 1607 James River fort. His jawbone told Doug Owsley of a "raging abscess" - a dental infection that carved a gaping crater in his chin and exposed his teeth. Owsley is head of the Smithsonian's division of physical anthropology.

The infection must have begun before the boy sailed from England, and it surely plagued him throughout the voyage. "He's really sick. He's really in trouble," said Owsley. Even so, the infection might not be what killed him.

Judging from the bones, Owsley believes the lad was one of four "boys" listed among the 104 settlers who landed on the island in 1607. Two weeks later the settlement was attacked by Indians. Journals recorded that a dozen men were wounded and a boy was killed. These might be his bones.

"It was a very hasty burial," Owsley said, "and he had a projectile point in his leg - embedded in his thigh tissue." Perhaps that's what finished him off.

A sculptor used the skull to reconstruct his face, and the boy's angular features, under a wool cap and long, curly hair, stare back at the exhibit's visitors.

But while life on the Chesapeake in the 1600s was hard on the poor and the low-born, it could be almost as painful for the rich and powerful.

Part of the Written in Bone exhibit focuses on burials in Maryland's now-vanished first capital at St. Mary's City. A ground-penetrating radar study there in 1990 revealed three lead coffins lying beneath a field, under what was once the floor of English America's first Roman Catholic chapel. All three coffins and their skeletons are on display.

Costly burials like that in such a prominent spot could only contain the remains of an important family. Henry Miller, research director at Historic St. Mary's City, led a multidisciplinary excavation in 1992. Historians concluded the largest coffin probably held the bones of Philip Calvert, the colony's chancellor and half-brother of the second Lord Baltimore.

Beside his remains were those of what historians believe was his first wife, Ann Wolsey Calvert, and one of Philip's children by his second wife.

But to forensic scientists, the Calverts' bones also told tales of suffering. Ann Calvert's femur had been broken. The break was set badly, became infected and must have caused her years of chronic pain and illness. The bones held traces of arsenic, apparently administered as a "cure." In her late 40s or 50s when she died, Ann also suffered from osteoporosis, arthritis and spinal degeneration. She had just five teeth, and her reconstructed face reflects an appropriate, pained weariness.

The infant Calvert's bones reveal "what has to be the worst case of rickets I've ever seen in a child," Owsley said. The vitamin D deficiency prevents proper mineralization of bone, which turns it fragile, porous and spongy. The baby's attempts to suckle only deformed its jaw.

"Even though this baby was the highest-status infant in North America at the time, they couldn't save it," Bruwelheide said.

But it's not all about death. The exhibit's skeletons also show how what people do in life can be read in their remains - the teeth notched by tailors' thread and pins, or by clay pipes; the thigh bones battered and bruised by leather-workers' hammers. Sharpened teeth - a practice unique to the African continent - reveal one skull to be that of an enslaved survivor of the deadly Middle Passage.

Visitors to the exhibit can also visit a forensic laboratory, where they can examine real bones and, like the fictionalized TV investigators on CSI, venture their conclusions on the age, stature and gender of the deceased, as well as any trauma, disease or other life stories they might reveal.

The exhibit continues until February 2011. Admission to the Smithsonian is free.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad