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The boy's skeleton was crammed into a cellar pit with a broken ceramic milk pan lying across his rib cage. (Chip Clark / NMNH, SI)

Solving a 17th-Century Crime

Forensic anthropologists at the National Museum of Natural History find answers to a colonial cold case

The boy does not have a name, but he is not unknown. Smithsonian scientists reconstructed his story from a skeleton, found in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, buried underneath a layer of fireplace ash, bottle and ceramic fragments, and animal bones.

Resting on top of the rib cage was the milk pan used to dig the grave. "It's obviously some sort of clandestine burial," says Kari Bruwelheide, who studied the body. "We call it a colonial cold case."

Bruwelheide is an assistant to forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley. After more than a decade of cases that span the centuries, the duo has curated "Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake," on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through February 2011. The exhibit shows visitors how forensic anthropologists analyze bones and artifacts to crack historical mysteries. "The public thinks they know a lot about it, but their knowledge is based on shows like ‘Bones' and ‘CSI,' so they get a lot of misinformation," Owsley says. "This is an opportunity for us to show the real thing."

Take the boy in the clandestine grave. Since the 1990s, the Lost Towns Project in Annapolis, Maryland—which aims to rediscover settlements that have disappeared from the landscape—has conducted excavations in Anne Arundel County, a social and political hub in colonial Maryland. When intern Erin Cullen unearthed a skull in a 17th-century cellar, archaeologists at Lost Towns sought out Owsley.

He recognized that the skull belonged to a Caucasian male. Further analyses indicated the male was of European descent and 15 to 16 years old. The boy's spine and teeth were damaged from hard labor or disease. This profile fit that of an indentured servant in the Chesapeake Bay of the mid-17th century. During this time, young European men and women signed indenture contracts with Chesapeake planters, merchants and tradesmen. Typically, servants needed to work for at least four years to pay off the debt, but it was not uncommon for them to die during the harsh conditions of bondage.

Based on the artifacts surrounding the body—including a coin dated 1664 and a piece of window that has a date stamp of 1663—archaeologist Jane Cox determined that the boy had died between 1665 and 1675. That time frame corresponds to when laws were being passed against the private burial of indentured servants, to prevent owners from covering up instances of abuse. The boy's right wrist was fractured in a way that suggested he used his arm to block a strong blow shortly before his death. That injury, along with the awkward burial, points to a violent end. "They were burying him in secret so they would not have to report the death," Bruwelheide surmises.

For Owsley, reconstructing the lives of people whose skeletons he uncovers is the most important part of the job. "The story of these individuals is their legacy," he says.

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