Sonnett: One of the lead coffins you examined at St. Mary’s City contained an infant. What was life like for these new Americans?
Owsley: Childcare as we know it today didn’t exist in Colonial America. The infant that we recovered at St. Mary’s City was a terribly sick baby. It showed many types of pathological changes to the bones. Malformations in the ribs and skull showed the onset of rickets, due to a lack of Vitamin D, and an anemic condition from an iron deficiency.
These babies were swaddled, wrapped up tight in cloth. Well, we know today that sunlight is important to the production of Vitamin D, so, by keeping them out of the sun, they were making them sicker. And, as they did get worse, they’d call a physician and a common treatment was “bleeding.” This was believed to remove contaminations from the blood, which would improve their chances of survival. But children lost iron when they lost blood, which in turn made them even sicker. So sometimes the treatment was worse than the original illness.
Sonnett: When you were invited to examine remains found at Jamestown by archeologist Dr. William Kelso, what did you find there that linked back to your other studies of Colonial-era settlers along the Chesapeake?
Owsley: I was asked to help the National Park Service identify five skeletons had been excavated on Jamestown Island many years ago. They were believed to have been Native Americans, but our examinations showed that they were 17th-century Africans, some of the first in English America. Dr. Kelso was conducting an excavation in the fort area of Jamestown and he was discovering burials—and there were a lot of them. He was looking for specifically architectural features and artifacts that dated to the earliest days of the colony, but these remains offered the opportunity to begin our collaboration. This gave us a chance to examine the remains of men and women who lived during the earliest days of the English colonies in America. As we combine the data that we have collected on burials from 17th and 18th century sites in Maryland and Virginia, we are gaining new information about the people who helped build the American way of life.
The first burial that they recovered was “J.R.,” or Jamestown Recovery, 102C. He’s a young man—about 17 to 19 years old. He’s still growing—the limb bones still have growth plates that are open. And he had a mortal wound to his right lower leg—a gunshot wound. It was a combat, shotgun-type load with a large caliber round ball as well as about twenty pellets of buckshot.
Sonnett: Can you tell if this shot was intentionally self-inflicted or a result of combat or an accident?
Owsley: From the position of the wound—low in the leg—and the scatter of the shot, you can tell that it’s not something he could have done. The lead projectiles were spread out over several inches. So it’s going to be as a result of someone else.
We know from the historical record that there were individuals who died as a result of accidents as well as through conflict with the Native Americans. And determining this depends a lot on the time period we are talking about, because if this were in the 1607 period, it would be the English colonists that had the guns. An accident seems likely. However, I don’t believe this is one of the very earliest burials. If this burial dates a decade or two later, it could be possible that it occurred during a hostile encounter with Native Americans, who acquired these kinds of weapons through trade.
We’re trying to pin down J.R.’s time of death through radiocarbon dating, but he falls right in that break point. By testing the isotope value of his remains, we’re learning something about his diet, which indicates that he was in the colonies for much of his growing-up period. So if he wasn’t born here, he probably came over as a very small child.