The Body in the Basement
Archaeologists from Anne Arundel County, Maryland’s Lost Towns Project discovered the site of Leavy Neck, a small 17th-century farm, in 1991. A decade later, they uncovered a surprising find in the cellar of a house — a human skeleton.
Why Was a Dead Boy Stashed in the Cellar?
How a body is treated after death can be a clue to its identity. This skeleton was found in the northeast corner of a large storage cellar. Whoever buried the body dug a shallow hole, packed a thick layer of clay soil on the corpse and then filled the cellar with household trash. The artifacts found in the trash layer just over the body date from about 1663 to 1680.
Historical records show that a family settled on Leavy Neck in 1662. A husband, wife, a son and two daughters, and two unnamed indentured servants were starting a small plantation. Archaeological evidence indicates that the house was abandoned by the 1680s, so this burial had to take place while the family lived there. Was this boy one of their servants?
“Whereas the private burial of servants & others give occasion of much scandal against diverse persons and sometimes not undeservedly of being guilty of their deaths… be it enacted that there be in every parish three or fower or more places appoynted… for places of publique burial…”
— Virginia statute, 1661
A 1661 Virginia law forbade private burial of servants. It ordered public burials, so that any foul play or mistreatment would be noticed. Maryland considered a similar law in 1663 but did not pass it. Clearly the colonists recognized that while the lives of indentured servants were always difficult, for some their situation was dangerous.
This burial, with its nontraditional placement of the body, contrasts markedly with other 17th-century burials. It was not in a cemetery but in the cellar of an occupied house. The unevenly dug pit was too short and narrow for the body, which was bent at the hips and knees. A large piece of a milk pan left on the chest clearly did not belong to the deceased but was used to dig the shallow grave and force the corpse into the pit. Such lack of concern for the deceased implies his lack of connection to the household. But, did the skeletal evidence also support the hunch that this was an unnamed servant?
The initial assessment of the skeleton while still in the ground identified it as a European teenaged male. At first, no signs of trauma explained his ill treatment at burial. In the lab, his bones revealed more. Back trauma, poor nutrition, and infection are all present — evidence of a brief, physically demanding existence. Perimortem fractures in the right wrist indicate a defensive injury. Though not in itself fatal, it might have been sustained in a struggle ending in death.
Evidence at the Scene
Archaeologists excavated a thick layer of household trash over a burial in a storage cellar under the main house site. Investigators believed the house was built soon after purchase of the land in 1662, and that the site was abandoned by 1680. The amount of trash suggests that the body was buried during the first decade the family lived in the home.
The Boy from Leavy Neck
In life, the boy buried in the cellar, was almost certainly an indentured servant — young, from a poorer background, hoping to better himself, but overworked to the point of injury and in bad health. The hidden circumstances of his burial and evidence in his bones suggest abuse and wrongful death.
His case makes us reassess the past. He represents thousands of forgotten, anonymous teenagers and young adults who were so important in founding the country. Undoubtedly many indentured servants were less than well treated, but many did survive to fulfill their contracts and find opportunity. They became the tenant farmers and small landowners who made the colonies succeed.
The discoveries about this young man's life and death are also presented in the webcomic The Secret in the Cellar.