Remains of Colonial teen pose a `history mystery'

Basement burial find near Annapolis may give new New World clues

July 12, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists digging in one of their favorite kinds of pits -- a trash cellar -- figured its mix of coins, pottery shards and pipe- stems would tell them about one of the earliest European settlements along the Chesapeake Bay.

But a unique and mysterious discovery along a cellar wall promises to be the most telling of all, offering insights into the difficulty of forging a new life in the New World settlement of Providence in the 1600s.

"We did not expect to find this dead guy," said Anne Arundel County archaeologist Al Luckenbach.

Beneath a few feet of rubbish, along a basement wall of a house from the 1660s near modern-day Annapolis, was a human skeleton stuffed into a small grave. This is the region's first discovery of an apparent 17th-century basement burial, experts say.

Archaeologists hope the secrets in the bones can help reveal details of life in the Puritan community established on the banks of the Severn River in 1649, though why the teenager's body was in a cellar grave baffles them. It does not appear that the house was built after the burial.

The well-preserved remains point to an indentured servant whose master owned the house in the 1660s, experts said.

"They haven't studied a lot of colonists from this time period. If you can make the argument that he was an indentured servant, you can tell that he had a hard life, what kind of diet he had, and that he may be representative of certain people of that time," Luckenbach said.

The find last fall marked the second time in two years that Luckenbach's team discovered human remains interred beneath a house. The first, dating to about 1725, were the teeth, but little else, of an African child at the Colonial seaport of London Town, also near Annapolis.

Slaves brought to the African diaspora a tradition of burying children beneath floorboards. In contrast, white settlers were known to practice church burials and created graveyards near their homes.

Expediencies

But, said Wayne E. Clark, chief of the Maryland Office of Museum Services, finds such as the 17th-century basement skeleton may lead experts to scratch their heads. So few cellars of that era have been excavated, he said, and the difficulties of life on the frontier may have led to certain expediencies in burials.

Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, said his studies of the bones and teeth tell this of the young man:

He was about 16 years old and stood 5 feet 5 inches tall. He suffered from tuberculosis. He endured labor so hard that he had herniated discs and other back injuries. When younger, he had a broken elbow. He began life in Northern Europe, most likely England, but his diet changed from the European wheat-based foods to the Colonies' more meager corn-based diet.

He probably died of a systemic infection that may have had roots in his rotting and abscessing teeth, 19 of which had cavities.

"This young man is a fascinating story for me," said Owsley, who plans to use the skeleton in an exhibit on early Chesapeake settlers to show how life's hardships took their toll.

Only part of the story lies in the bones. The rest is in documents and what Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City -- a settlement that predates Providence -- called a "very strange burial by any interpretation." The circumstances, he said, suggest "that this was someone nobody cared about."

Records show that starting in 1662, William Neale was the first to live on the site known as Leavy Neck, said David Gadsby, who directs the Anne Arundel County archaeology lab. He and Luckenbach think the teenager served Neale.

An estate inventory from 1675 to 1676 shows Neale had two indentured servants. But Luckenbach doubts the skeleton was one of those because the trash on top of him appears to be from the previous decade, including a little-worn 1664 English coin.

"It was not a proper burial. ... He was not carefully interred. He was dumped," said Ivor Noel Hume, the retired director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and a pioneer in historical archaeology.

By the 1660s, informal burials had become a problem in the Colonies. A 1662 law adopted in Virginia noted that "private burial of servants and others give occasion to much scandal," Hume said.

No record of a similar law affecting Maryland's early communities has been found, though one was considered, Luckenbach said.

No evidence of a shroud or coffin was found, indicating low status and perhaps haste, archaeologists said.

Theory, speculation

The basement burial is leading to plenty of theorizing and speculation. The Public Broadcasting Service's American history television series History Detectives plans to feature a segment on the skeleton in a Sept. 27 show, said producer Annie Heringer.

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