Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
In 1992, archaeologists recovered the remains of an infant buried beneath the floor of the 17th-century Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City, Maryland. A small lead-sheathed coffin indicated that the baby belonged to a prominent family, but investigators had only the bones and burial clues to tell the child's story.
A Victim of the Times
A good colonial mother wrapped her baby in linen swaddling clothes or quilted, embroidered bands, which held the child's hands and feet in place. Then she placed the bundled baby in a pocket with a board back, and covered its head and ears with a cap. Swaddled babies stayed warm but received very little sunlight.
Neither wealth nor careful childcare could save this very sickly baby. The infant was suffering from serious conditions that the doctors of the time did not understand nor know how to treat. This case points to the plight of many children in the colonial Chesapeake.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies leave clear markers in bone. This infant was suffering from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency. The skull (shown at left), ribs, and long bones show changes due to rickets. Chronic diarrhea probably aggravated the baby's malnutrition. Some features of the pelvis and skull — small teeth, pointed chin, and jaw line — led some investigators to think this infant was female, but the identification of sex remains tentative, and DNA tests were inconclusive.
The most extreme evidence of rickets in this baby is the abnormal angle of the jaw. As the infant suckled, the motion bent the weakened bone near the jaw backward, changing its shape. Improper mineralization of the bone led to expansion (flaring) of the ends of the ribs.
Evidence at the Scene
Analysis of pollen in the grave reveals that the death took place in spring — supporting evidence that the baby had been swaddled during the winter. The burial was elaborate. Pins and traces of linen indicated that the body was placed in a shroud and then in a costly lead coffin buried in a place of honor beneath the chapel floor. Most intriguing, the infant's coffin lay beside two larger lead coffins. The names of the adult male and female they held were unknown at discovery.
Forensic investigation later identified the adults as the colony's chancellor and governor, Philip Calvert, and his first wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert. Births, deaths, and marriages were rarely recorded in the colonial Chesapeake. Historical records on infants or children are virtually nonexistent, even for those born to families of high social status. Because Anne Wolseley Calvert was at least 60 at her death and this burial was later than hers, the infant could not have been hers. It was most likely a child born to Philip Calvert and his second wife, Jane Sewell.
Video: Living and Dying in America
Excavations at Maryland's first colonial settlement revealed three rare, lead coffins. Clues from the coffins and the bones they contained led to the identification of Philip Calvert and his wife Anne Wolseley Calvert. An infant in the third coffin remains unnamed. Chief archaeologist Dr. Henry Miller discusses the history and archaeology of this important site while Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley shares what the skeletons revealed about life in St. Mary's City. Video courtesy of the History Channel.