Solving a 17th-Century Crime

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

Boy skeleton in cellar pit
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

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.

The skull of the 14-to-15 year old found at James Fort site indicates that a quick death from an Indian attack might have been a blessing. Piecing his bones together, forensic anthropologists saw that this boy had an infection that had spread from a broken, abscessed tooth into his lower jawbone. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist and “Written in Bone” co-curator Karin Bruwelheide measuring a skull. Bruwelheide and Douglas Owsley have worked together for over a decade. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Smithsonian forensic anthropologist and “Written in Bone” co-curator Douglas Owsley examining and early 18th-century burial in Jamestown, Virginia. Not only does Owsley solve the crimes of the past, he is one of the government’s go-to-scientists for high-profile cases. He helped identify the mothers and children who died during the Waco Siege as well as the victims of the September 11 Pentagon attacks. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
In this scene, archaeologist Ruth Mitchell excavates a 17th-century grave located inside the partially reconstructed Brick Chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Many people and great amounts of time are required to reconstruct colonial history. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Medical technology has brought changes to the field of forensic anthropology. As evidence by this hip replacement, where the damaged ball of the femur was replaced by a metal implant, a 21st-century skeleton may differ from a 17th-century one. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Forensic anthropologists don’t just solve history’s mysteries. Even modern skeletons have their stories to tell. This interior view of a skull shows the fractures left behind from a fatal gunshot wound. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Two excavated double burials dating to 1607 from the James Fort site in Jamestown, Virginia. Dark-colored rectangular soil stains are locations of unexcavated graves. So many double burials indicate a time of hardship for the colonists. Forensic anthropologists believe a difficult winter that year may have claimed many lives. Michael Lavin, APVA Preservation Virginia / Historic Jamestown
Also found buried in a lead coffin was the skeleton of a 6-month-old-infant with severe rickets who died around 1683. Forensic anthropologists believe he or she is the child of Philip Calvert’s second wife. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
The skeleton of Anne Wolsey Calvert, the first wife of Philip Calvert was found buried in a 500-pound lead coffin, indicating she was of high status when she died in her 60s around 1680. A misaligned, healed fracture of her right femur made her right leg shorter than the left. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
The boy's skull showed evidence of abuse. "Dirt was caked into the crevices of the mil pan's worn edges," says Owsley. "We know it was used to bury the body." Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
This skeleton of a 14-to-15-year-old male may have been the first fatality at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. Captain John Smith wrote that two weeks after colonists arrived in 1607, an Indian attack took the life of a boy. The lack of any European artifacts in the soil shoveled into the grave, indicating the burial took place during the first weeks or months of settlement, supports this theory. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Early stages of a facial reconstruction of one of Jamestown's first settlers. Markers indicate the depths of tissues to be added to the cast of the skull. Several reconstructions by forensic sculptor, Amanda Danning, can be found at the NMNH “Written in Bone” exhibit. Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution
A sculpted bust by StudioEIS based on a facial reconstruction by forensic artist Joanna Hughes. The skeleton of this young African woman recovered in an early 18th-century grave tells of a hard life of physical labor. Back trauma is evident in her vertebrae, along with heavy use of muscles that deeply pitted the bones of her upper body. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
The Leavy Neck boy isn’t the only forensic file at the NMNH “Written in Bone” exhibit. Ground-penetrating radar uncovered this skeleton of an early 18th-century African female at the Harleigh Knoll site in Talbot County, Maryland. She was found partially exposed in the remains of a hexagonally-shaped wooden coffin. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
A servant (recreation by Joanna Hughes and StudioEis) was secretly buried in a Maryland cellar. Douglas Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide studied the boy's skeleton to learn what really happened. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide studies Leavy Neck boy's skeleton. Evidence of traumatic bone fractures helped bring this colonial cold case to a close. Chip Clark / NMNH, SI
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

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