Finding the Evidence
We discover bones every day. Sometimes they emerge as archaeologists locate and excavate gravesites, but many finds are unexpected. Unmarked burials, and even trash dumps or old wells, may hold skeletal evidence.
Scientists find answers about people and events in bones and teeth. This skeletal evidence, together with written and cultural records, unlocks a new, more intimate way to look at the past, and introduces us to actual people who made history.
Context is Crucial
Excavators have only one chance to collect the evidence. All excavation is destructive, moving bones and artifacts from their original, buried positions. Once the remains are rearranged or removed, their context is lost if it is not painstakingly recorded.
Like detectives, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists gather as much evidence as possible. For each set of remains, they assemble a case file. Documenting a skeleton's discovery and recovery requires careful observation, patience, and hard work.
Steps Involved in Excavating Burials:
1. A plan drawn before excavating shows the shape of a grave. The shaft soil differs in color and composition from the surrounding undisturbed soil because digging and refilling a grave mix soil layers.
2. Excavators work down until they find evidence of a coffin or human remains. They screen soil for unrelated items in the grave or grave fill because the age of these "accidental" artifacts can help in dating the burials. They may sample the soil for pollen to determine the season of burial. They also map the position of nails, which show the presence and shape of a coffin long after wood has decayed.
3. A forensic anthropologist examines the bones in place, or in situ, before removing them for further analysis. Drawings and photographs document the body in the burial. The positions of the bones can indicate how a body was readied for burial and placed in the grave.
Video: Unearthing the Evidence
Watch how teams of archaeologists document and excavate burial sites. The video includes footage taken on-site during the recovery of burials at Jamestown and Historic St. Mary's City. Video courtesy of the History Channel.
Clues in the Burial
A burial marks an exact point in time, and preserves information not only about the deceased but also about those who buried the body—their beliefs, customs, and daily lives. Formal burials reflect culturally prescribed ways to show respect for the deceased, as well as a means to dispose of the dead.
Bones found in even the most unlikely places hold clues. Chesapeake burials sometimes reveal corpses hurriedly placed in shallow pits, with little attention paid to positioning the body. On rare occasions, archaeologists find bones in trash pits, old wells, or cellars.
- Chesapeake colonists buried almost all human remains in graves. More than 99 percent of the 17th-century remains recovered so far reveal ritual burial. Learn more about burial practices by opening the information below by clicking on the plus signs (+).