Bones tell of harsh Md. life in 1600s Tales emerge from cenetery in Calvert Co.

June 25, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- When archaeologists excavated 18 graves at a 3-century-old Calvert County plantation a few years ago, they had no headstones, no diaries, no letters and no church records. Nothing 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, Dr. 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 death.

"The general picture I have is that, particularly for adults, it was a very hard life," said Dr. Ubelaker, the curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Ubelaker, 46, has seen a lot 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 compound. (He declined to talk about the case.)

Dr. Ubelaker's passion is archaeology, and last year he was asked to study the remains found at Patuxent Point.

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 best preserved.

Julie King, an archaeologist with the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum of St. Leonard, approached Dr. 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, Dr. King said. Most of the remains found at the cemetery, which was excavated in 1988 and 1989 to make way for homes, are thought to predate the remains in three lead coffins in St. Mary's City.

Those expensive coffins, opened last November, are thought to contain the skeletons of Colonial Gov. Philip Calvert, who died in 1682, and members of his family.

The Patuxent Point colonists were people of modest means -- some were buried in rough wooden coffins, others in simple shrouds secured by brass pins. "They were sort of their [the Calverts'] poor country cousins," Dr. Ubelaker said.

In a 104-page preliminary report completed this month, he detailed the "harsh life" of the colonists, most of whom are thought to have been indentured servants from England.

Osteoporosis widespread

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. About a third of the colonists had suffered broken bones.

Osteoporosis, a bone disease marked by decreasing density and increasing brittleness, was widespread, posing a puzzle for archaeologists. Today, osteoporosis is a disease of aging. But the colonists buried at Patuxent Point died very young -- the average age for the men was 31. For women, it was 36.

Dr. Ubelaker suspects the bone disease may have been triggered by periods of starvation.

If so, he wrote in his report, that hunger could have "produced apathy, lethargy, memory loss and behavioral problems, especially among the young." Famine, he wrote, "may have affected the agricultural and domestic activities and potentially jeopardized the settlement."

The plantation was part of Hodgkin's Neck, a 100-acre tract of land acquired by Capt. John Odber in 1658. A plantation house -- perhaps for relatively wealthy tenant farmers renting land from the captain -- was built at the point, not far from the cemetery. For unknown reasons, Dr. King said, the site was abandoned about 1685.

Captain Odber, meanwhile, died in 1667 on the Eastern Shore, killed by Native Americans.

Miniature portraits

None of the names of the colonists who lived at Patuxent Point is known. But Dr. Ubelaker's research has yielded miniature portraits of many of them. In a few cases, he and Dr. King have dug up evidence of concern and cruelty.

A 5-foot-9-inch black teen-ager, clay pipe in hand, already showed the scars of a hard life of pulling, pushing or shoveling. But the muscular young man -- the only black person found buried at Patuxent Point -- apparently was treated with some measure of equality.

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