Written in Bone
Unearthing the Chesapeake
Four centuries ago, a band of English adventurers built a fort on the James River near the Chesapeake Bay. In the decades after 1607, shipload after shipload of colonists sought new lives in North America. They began moving inland, settling along the coastal rivers of Virginia and Maryland.
These early immigrants left us dramatic evidence of their lives — in the traces of the structures they built, the foods they ate, and the objects they used. The most vivid evidence waits in their unmarked graves and skeletons.
Today, scientists are recovering these buried clues and investigating these most personal physical records.
We discover bones every day. Sometimes archaeologists locate and excavate gravesites, but many finds are unexpected. Unmarked burials, and even trash dumps or old wells, may hold skeletal evidence.
The First Colonists
Barely over 100 men and boys sailed from England in 1607 as the first settlers in Jamestown. They were laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, officers, and gentlemen. Traces of their colony soon disappeared. What do we know now about the ordeals they endured?
- Finding James Fort
- The First Fatality?
- Harsh Realities of Life
- Struggling to Survive
- 3D Tour of Jamestown Chancel Burials
Spurred by tobacco profits, Chesapeake settlement grew rapidly. Most immigrants were Europeans. But by the late 1660s, more and more Africans were brought to the region. As a cash crop, tobacco brought prosperity, at the cost of human suffering.
- The Bondservants' Bargain (Indentured Servants)
- Hard Evidence of Heavy Toil
- Proof of Burden
- Pleasure of a Pipe
Little is known and even less was written about Africans in the Chesapeake during the 1600s. The few surviving records mention "Negroes" in passing and usually just by first names — if by any name.
Living and Dying in America
Colonists faced brutal summer heat and humidity, spells of hunger, heavy labor, outbreaks of conflict, and illness from both familiar and new diseases. Limited medical knowledge and lack of larger family support made their lives even more precarious.
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.