Study of Bones Paints Picture of 17th Century Colonial Life

By 1993, The Baltimore Sun | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 12, 1993 | Go to article overview

Study of Bones Paints Picture of 17th Century Colonial Life


1993, The Baltimore Sun, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When archaeologists excavated 18 graves at a three-century-old Calvert County, Md., plantation a few years ago, they had no headstones, no diaries, no letters and no church records. Nothing existed 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, 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 Ubelaker, the curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Ubelaker, 46, has seen an abundance 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.

Ubelaker's passion is archaeology, and last year he was asked to study the remains found at Patuxent Point, Md.

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 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, King said. Most of the remains found at the cemetery were excavated in 1988 and 1989 to make way for homes.

In a 104-page preliminary report completed in June, 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.

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