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Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland


On a hot summer day in 2005, Dr. Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution peered into an excavated grave, carefully examining the fragile skeleton that had been buried there for four hundred years. “He was about fifteen years old when he died. And he was European,” Owsley concluded. But how did he know?

Scientists discovered this grave inside the remains of James Fort, in Jamestown, Virginia. They were excavating the site with the goal of better understanding the Europeans ...

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On a hot summer day in 2005, Dr. Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution peered into an excavated grave, carefully examining the fragile skeleton that had been buried there for four hundred years. “He was about fifteen years old when he died. And he was European,” Owsley concluded. But how did he know?

Scientists discovered this grave inside the remains of James Fort, in Jamestown, Virginia. They were excavating the site with the goal of better understanding the Europeans and Africans who lived in Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay area during the 1600s and 1700s. Who were these people? How did they live? And how did they die?

Just as forensic scientists use their knowledge of human remains to help solve crimes, they use similar skills to solve the mysteries of the long-ago past. From the skeletons, the burial practices, and remnants of objects found nearby, scientists can determine gender and ancestry, along with probable age, what the person ate, what lifestyle he or she lived, and the cause of death. In some cases, further research helps scientists speculate on who the dead were.

Join author Sally M. Walker as she works alongside the scientists who use state-of-the-art methods to decipher clues from America’s colonial past. As you follow their investigations, Walker will introduce you to what scientists believe are the lives of a teenage boy, a ship’s captain, an indentured servant, a colonial official and his family, and an African slave girl. All are reaching beyond the grave to tell us their stories, which are written in bone.

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Editorial Reviews

Abby McGanney Nolan
Like last year's Bodies from the Ice, this book takes the remains of the long-dead and reconstructs elements of their lives in startling detail…Walker's absorbing book reveals what can be gained from digging deeply and patiently.
—The Washington Post
Children's Literature - Elizabeth D. Schafer
Several Mid-Atlantic colonists' mysterious pasts are unearthed in this intriguing examination of how forensic investigations advance historical comprehension of previous eras. This book tells how diverse forensic authorities apply their expertise, scientific strategies, and technological tools to evaluate skeletons and artifacts such as shroud pins, buttons, or weapons in graves. Color photographs of excavations enable readers to be at sites vicariously as investigators discover and document their finds. Bones and teeth provide clues revealing people's gender, age, and ethnicity. The text describes stages from infancy to adulthood in skeletal and dental maturation, noting when joints fuse and teeth emerge and how bone mass indicates whether individuals engaged in heavy labor or led sedentary lifestyles. Skeletons hint of accidents, violence, or dietary deficiencies causing deaths. Soil analyses detect pollen and organic clues to estimate when people were buried. Measuring carbon isotopes in bone samples, scientists determine how long people lived in the colonies, according to if colonists' diets consisted primarily of wheat or corn. Historical records such as ship lists and journals help identify who some skeletons might have been. The text does not explain why scientists did not perform DNA testing of featured skeletons. Includes endnotes, bibliography, and timeline. This is a companion book for a Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit. Highly recommended for history and science students. Reviewer: Elizabeth D. Schafer
School Library Journal

Gr 6-9

Walker takes readers on an archaeological investigation of human and material remains from 17th- and 18th-century Jamestown and colonial Maryland, while addressing relevant topics in forensic anthropology, history, and archaeology. The excavations encompass burial sites of colonists from various backgrounds, including a teenage indentured servant hastily buried in a trash pit, a grouping of prominent colonists laid to rest in lead coffins, and a woman of African heritage who likely toiled as a slave. Answers concerning the identity and fate of the uncovered remains are realized only after various specialists combine their findings to re-create relevant historical circumstances. In one instance, anthropologists provide anatomical details of a recovered skull to artists, who then use the data to produce the first sculpture of an American colonist of African ancestry. The text succinctly explains complex forensic concepts, such as determining the gender and age of a skeleton, or whether a skull represents a person originating from Europe or Africa. Captioned, full-color photographs of skeletal, dental, and artifactual remains shed light on colonial life. Historical documents, illustrated maps, and anatomical drawings complement images of various specialists at work in the field. Photographs of reenactors performing period tasks, such as grinding corn, provide insight into the daily life of the recovered individuals. Though other recent volumes discuss forensic anthropology, such as James M. Deem's Bodies from the Ice (Houghton, 2008), Written in Bone casts a magnifying glass on the hardships and realities of colonial life so often romanticized in Americanlore.-Jeff Meyer, Slater Public Library, IA

Kirkus Reviews
Walker (Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, 2006 Sibert Award) places dedicated young CSI fans right at the elbows of forensic archeologists studying colonial-era burials in the Chesapeake Bay area. Focusing on nine graves, she explains in precise detail how scientists can draw sometimes-surprising conclusions about what these early settlers ate, where they came from and when, their age and sex, how they lived and died-all from subtle clues in the bones, the teeth, the surrounding dirt and, rarely, the sketchy historical evidence that survives. Her examples were all European except for one of African descent and range from a prominent relative of Maryland's founder ceremoniously interred to a teenager who seems to have been hastily buried in a cellar after being beaten to death. Readers will be enticed by both the scientific detective work and by the tantalizing mysteries that remain. Based on interviews and published sources and profusely illustrated with photos of skulls and skeletons, this makes a riveting companion to Karen Lange's 1607: A New Look at Jamestown (2007). (maps, timeline, resource lists) (Nonfiction. 12-15)
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Sally M. Walker has brought science to life in more than fifty books for young readers. Her meticulous research and stirring storytelling in Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley won her the prestigious Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award Medal in 2006. She also won acclaim for Fossil Fish Found Alive, an ALA Notable title. In Written in Bone, she brings that same skill and scholarship to uncover the stories of people from the colonial era. She worked alongside scientists, forensic anthropologists, and archivists as they excavated and studied skeletons, burial practices, and remnants found in Virginia and Maryland. Ms. Walker lives in De Kalb, Illinois.
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