Sunday, June 29, 2008

What These Bones Can Tell Us

At the risk of beating this subject to death (who didn't see that pun coming?), I thought I would say a few words about what we might expect human remains to look like and what we might learn from them if we did exhume them.

At Patuxent Point, we recovered the remains of 18 individuals prior to the destruction of the site by construction. The bones were in good to excellent condition...that isn't the case at every site, especially for remains interred in acidic piedmont clays. Grave 15, excavated and recorded by Dennis Pogue of Mount Vernon, appears below. Douglass Ubelaker of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, examined and reported on all of the skeletons that we had recovered.

Grave 15 was one of the Cluster 2 graves, a scatter of three isolated graves oriented more or less north-south. The individual in Grave 15 was a female, aged between 26 and 33, about 5'-4" to 5'-6" tall, and probably of European ancestry. She had excellent teeth, exhibiting neither decay nor enamel erosion from smoking a clay pipe. There was some sign of nutritional stress earlier in her life and she had just begun to suffer from arthritis. No coffin was present, only brass shroud pins.

A possible reason for her burial apart from the others presented itself while Dennis was excavating her remains. In the pelvic area he uncovered some small, poorly developed bones. We puzzled over these only for a moment before realizing that the bones were those of a fetus. The young woman likely died in childbirth or possibly from complications just before parturition.

Because the documentation of the succession of households that occupied the site is far from complete, we cannot deduce who this young woman was; nor can we identify any of the other 17 individuals. More complete documentation, possibly coupled with DNA analyses, potentially could allow the identification of the people interred at Patuxent Point, or at any other small household or community cemetery. That information could resurrect the identities of these people and greatly enrich stories of their lives.


PS. Douglass Owsley, also of the Smithsonian Institution, is developing an exhibition around the Patuxent Point remains and those of other Colonists excavated by archaeologists in the Chesapeake Bay region. I think the planned opening date is in November of this year.

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