Bones Abroad (Kinda): Washington, D.C.

This past weekend I went to Washington, DC, and while I was there I got the chance to go to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The museum has fantastic exhibits for anyone with an interest in mortuary or bioarchaeology. There is an extensive collection of Egyptian funerary artifacts, including canopic jars, tomb inscriptions, animal mummies and human mummies. However, the highlight of the museum was the newly opened “Written in Bone” exhibit.

Excavation, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

“Written in Bone”, a museum exhibit about the first burials found at Chesapeake. Unlike many exhibits about the first colonists, this takes a forensics anthropology and bioarchaeology perspective to look at the human remains. The analysis includes information on the lifestyles of the pilgrims as well as a number of potential murder investigations. Along with displaying the actual remains, the exhibit discusses the skeletal markers and other artifactual evidence that led the researchers to make their conclusions. This gives the museum goer a rare opportunity to examine the bones like an anthropologist, rather than just as a passive spectator. In general the first colonists had difficult lives, a fact that was apparent in the bones. Many of the remains are quite dense with enlarged muscle attachment sites, especially in their upper arms. Arthritis was common in many of the skeletons showing a lifetime of wear and tear. Schmorl’s nodes and spondylolysis were present in many vertebrae. These depressions in the bodies and fractures of the vertebrae are signs of repeated heavy lifting stress.

One of the most fascinating sections of the exhibit was the presence of occupation  markers. Occupation markers occur when the repeated movements or habits involved with a specific job or task cause them to be imprinted on the bone. There were three occupation markers found at Chesapeake. The first was the presence of Tailor’s Notches. These are small indentations found in the front teeth of the individual. The notches are due to holding sewing needles between the teeth. Tailors and seamstresses usually put their needles or pins between their teeth in order to hold them while they are cutting or moving fabric.

Pipe Notch, from Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The second included larger circular notches that often are found between teeth, known as Pipe Notches. While these are not occupational, they are due to holding a pipe between one’s teeth. Holding the clay pipe for extended periods broke down the teeth over time. In addition to this there were also stains from the tobacco. What is interesting about this marker is that it was found in the old and young, and men and women, indicating almost everyone was smoking. Finally, there was an interesting case of Shoemaker’s Femur. Shoemaker’s place their shoes against their legs when they are nailing the heels onto the other sections of the shoe. This is seen as new bone growth on the anterior of the femur. Due to repeated minor bruising and trauma to the upper leg, the bone reacts and grows abnormally.

In addition to learning about the lives of the colonists, there were a number of forensics cases that explored the deaths of the colonists. One of the most interesting cases was that of a young man found beneath the floor of the house owned by the Leavy Family. Burials at Chesapeake have been primarily found in cemeteries or formal burials. However, this individual was found curled on his side, under the floorboards, with a large broken pot on top of the body.

Boy Beneath the Floorboards, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Interpreting this unusual burial requires careful examination of the details. The skeletal evidence revealed no sign of cause of death, but they did find signs of poor health including back trauma from heavy work, infection, and poor nutrition. This suggests that the individual was part of the working class or an indentured servant. Records show that the Leavy family did indeed have servants. There were laws in place during this period which prevented the burial of servants in private cemeteries. This way if the death was due to mistreatment it could be recognized by the local government. The unusual and secret burial suggests that this individual’s death may have been due to abuse, and therefore was hidden in the cellar to prevent retribution by the local government.

For the rest of the details you can check out the museum’s website: Written in Bone. Better yet, go visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum!

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