Old bones a source of insights, mystery

May 02, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff

It is always a macabre and chilling sight -- hundreds of densely packed human bones, tumbling out of a shallow pit, unexpectedly exposed by a backhoe or erosion. But it's not some Balkan nightmare. Nearly three dozen of these bone pits, or ossuaries, have turned up in tidewater Maryland since the 1850s, one as recently as 1992. The largest held the remains of hundreds of men, women and children -- 15th- to 17th-century Native Americans who lived in an area that today stretches from Montgomery County to Maryland's Atlantic Coast.

The bodies clearly decomposed elsewhere, some above ground. One skull found in Virginia held the nest of a mud-dauber wasp. But at some point the bones were gathered up, stripped of any remaining flesh and reburied.

"There is an intimacy [with the dead] there we could never deal with in our culture," says Dennis C. Curry, an archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust. "Imagine if one of these were one of your kids, or a dead family member. It must be very emotional."

Ossuaries, he says, are a key to "reconstructing prehistoric populations and demographic profiles, to addressing aboriginal health and nutritional issues, to deciphering Native American social, political and belief systems."

Curry writes about all these issues in "Feast of the Dead," his new book on Maryland's ossuaries, just published by the Archaeological Society of Maryland.

He had set out to review prior ossuary research and write a guide for future archaeologists. But when the University of Michigan turned up ample notes and photos from ossuary digs 60 years ago in Charles County, he saw a chance to reach the general public instead. He hopes "Feast of the Dead" will introduce readers to "a unique Native American cultural and religious practice and, ultimately, to the benefits of modern archaeology."

Small ossuaries have turned up on Cape Cod, in southern New York, Pennsylvania and as far south as Florida. Most seem linked to groups that spoke related Algonquian languages. But the religious beliefs and societal needs behind them remain a mystery.

Only a handful of eyewitness descriptions survive. Jesuit missionaries living among Ontario's Huron Indians in 1650 wrote that the Huron chiefs would confer, then issue a call to outlying villages to bring in the bones of their dead.

The skeletons of those who had died during the prior eight to 12 years would then be dug from the ground, or collected from raised scaffolds or mortuary houses, and packed in bundles.

At the appointed place and time, amid days of games, contests and feasting, the bone bundles would be carefully arranged in a pit lined with skins or furs, then reburied amid wailing and moaning from the women. Ceremonial fires would be lighted over them, followed by one final feast.

Written accounts by Europeans, and bones stumbled on centuries later have been the only evidence of these rites. But Curry says, "I think we have been looking at a picture for 400 years that may be an ossuary." It is a 1585 engraving of Secotan, an Indian village in North Carolina, based on a watercolor by John White, an artist and governor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony.

It shows a longhouse "wherin are the tombes of their kings and princes," White wrote. Beside it is a circular space marked by a fire and posts bearing carved faces. White marked that as the spot "wher they assemble themselves to make their solemne prayers." Curry thinks it's the village ossuary.

Maryland may have witnessed the largest ossuary burials.

A single site, discovered in the 1930s by amateur archaeologist Alice Ferguson on her Charles County farm, contained the remains of 648 individuals. The bones of nearly 800 more were found in three ossuaries at a nearby village site called Moyaone.

All four burials occurred within 30 years of each other, before about 1630. "But it doesn't make sense to me," Curry says. Moyaone simply wasn't big enough to produce that many dead so quickly. "There's something we don't understand about all this."

Was it an epidemic? Or were the bones gathered from a large number of related villages? Some investigators have argued that the ossuary practices reflected the political reach of the chiefdoms of the period, which were expanding.

Ossuaries are filled with questions. A few intact skeletons -- with bones still in order -- were found at the bottom of the pits. Did the death of a leader trigger the gathering up of the bones of his family or followers for a communal burial? Perhaps 5 percent of the bones had been cremated. No one knows why.

Shell beads were often found in Maryland ossuaries, many with the bones of children. Archaeologists also found pipes and pottery. Later sites also contained European trade goods: glass and copper beads, copper rings, pendants and hawkbells. What sentiments lay behind the offerings?

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