"Written in Bone:

Forensic Files of the

17th Century Chesapeake"

PRESENTED AT THE MAY 17, 2008 MEMBERSHIP MEETING OF
THE JAMESTOWNE SOCIETY IN WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA
AT THE WILLIAMSBURG MARRIOTT

BY

Dr. Douglas Owsley
DIVISION HEAD, DIVISION OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY
DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
P. O. BOX 37012
 SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
WASHINGTON, DC 20013-7012

The photos shown below are used with Dr. Owsley's permission. Those who wish to contribute to the "Written in Bone" exhibit may do so by sending donations to Dr. Owsley at the address listed above. Click here to see a brochure on the exhibit.

The opening slide of the presentation shows the artist's concept of how the exhibit will greet visitors.

Goals of the Exhibition indicate how the past ties with the present.

Exhibits will include actual samples from various sites in the Chesapeake Bay area, along with detailed explanations.

This map shows various areas of investigation including Darnall's Chance, Harleigh Knoll, Patuxent and St. Mary's in Maryland, as well as Jordan's Point, Paspehegh, Jamestown, Buck, Yorktown and Martin's Hundred in Virginia.

Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, or not? The skeleton shown above was speculated to be that of the early settler, but to date, there is not conclusive evidence. The white bone shown at right illustrates the comparative height between a present-day American of average size and the much smaller skeleton.

Dr. Osley, shown above at top left, works with a skilled reconstructive artist who carefully "builds out" the appearance of skeletal remains into what they likely resembled in real life.

Clues come from evidence such as double burials. These are shown from James Fort.

The map above shows burials which are located at the site of the present Archaerium in Historic Jamestowne.  Pink indicates multiple burials in the shaft; green indicates burials with clothing; blue indicates burials with lead shot; the white outline indicates the overlay of the foundation over the gravesites. These burial sites are believed to date from the Starving Time.

Re-enactors at St. Mary's City in Maryland were asked to pose in various postures that would have been typical of their daily task assignments in order to assist Dr. Owsley and his investigation learn how these tasks might have affected skeletal evidence.

The above slide shows a very close up detail of a tooth on the left (showing groove marks) and what is referred to as "tailor's notch" on the tooth of Cicely Jordan (photo at right). Tailor's notch was explained as the repetitive wear on teeth caused by those who were engaged in sewing. Various kinds of wear including scarring from the biting of thread as well as from the holding of needles in the mouth have been discovered in skeletal evidence.

Cobbler's femur is a condition developed whereby the bone develops extra area in response to the continued striking on the thigh by cobblers as they made footwear.

People were addicted to tobacco, then, too. In fact, the continued use of tobacco pipes could often be determined by these rather alarming holes in the teeth of various skeletons found. Even young children then apparently used tobacco, from the evidence "written in bone." King James obviously had it right about tobacco use - he just didn't know all of the reasons!

Dr. Owsley explained that the circumstances of one's burial offers clues not only to one's life, but to one's death. The fact that this skeleton was found at the bottom of a chimney shaft, and that it was found with a pottery shard, probably indicates a hasty burial and the desire of those doing the burying not to call attention to the loss.

Not the evidence of dental neglect, but rather the opposite! These teeth belonged to a woman in her thirties, and the extreme erosion of the teeth is actually due to a colonial method of tooth-whitening.

Trephination is a process by which holes are bored into the skull to relieve pressure; rather medieval-sounding, it actually is still in use today, although hopefully under conditions where "practice marks" (shown above) are not evident. After the patient died, the unsuccessful surgeon then performed an autopsy.

Members of the family of an individual buried under a colonial church in Virginia attend while Dr. Owsley and others prepare to open the tomb. If identities are provided to the webmaster of the persons shown in the photo (and of the person whose tomb is being opened), those details will be provided here.

Showing the investigation proceeding. Dr. Owsley is on the right.

Dr. Owsley and his assistant shown above at the tomb site in the church.  Not only are a keen mind and a sense of curiosity important, but also it's essential to have a person on the team small enough to access small spaces!

If you are interested in making a contribution to the "Written in Bone" exhibit, you may contact

Dr. Douglas Owsley
DIVISION HEAD, DIVISION OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY
DEPARTMENT OF ANTHOLOGY
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
P. O. BOX 37012
 SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
WASHINGTON, DC 20013-7012

Smithsonian Brochure on "Written in Bone"

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