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
"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
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
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
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. …