Exploring the ChesapeakeNightmare in Jamestown

Nightmare in Jamestown on the National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Explorer presents Nightmare in Jamestown, premiering on the National Geographic Channel November 20, 2005. Check local listings for air times.

Photo: Ill colonist in a scene from the National Geographic Television's Nightmare in Jamestown
A Conversation with Dr. Doug Owsley: Dan Sonnet speaks with the forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Doug Owsley is a forensic anthropologist and heads the Physical Anthropology Division in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He is recognized as a leading expert on North American human remains and has studied thousands of skeletons from all periods of American history. Dr. Owsley currently leads a team of researchers studying skeletons from numerous sites in Maryland and Virginia in order to learn more about life and death in the Colonial-era Chesapeake Bay region—from Jamestown and beyond. His work is featured in the film Nightmare in Jamestown.

Powhatan Indians in National Geographic Television's Nightmare in Jamestown.
Jamestown colonists in National Geographic Television's Nightmare in Jamestown.

Sonnett: You have been involved in numerous high-profile forensics cases—identification of 9/11 victims, of victims at the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas—and you continue to work with police on missing persons cases. But you are also trained as an archeologist. What are some of the similarities and differences between modern forensics investigations and historical cases such as Jamestown?

Owsley: There are a number of steps that are possible to try to identify a specific individual. What this entails is a very careful examination of the skeleton. You learn what the bones can tell you and obtain a profile on that individual. But it’s not like an identification you can make in a contemporary forensics investigation—a missing persons case—where you might have x-rays or dental records of the person you are attempting to identify. It’s not that cut and dried.

But it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. You have to piece together several different kinds of information to come to a determination. This type of investigation brings together historians (who search the historical record to determine what is known about the individuals and the time period they lived in), archeologists (who are instrumental in the recovery of the remains as well as examining the coffin and other objects found inside the coffins), as well as forensic experts (who will look at the remains that are found).

Sonnett: How did you become involved in looking at Colonial-era remains from the Chesapeake Bay region?

Owsley: I was initially asked to join a team of investigators to look at three lead coffins in St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s colonial capital. These were very high-status individuals. To be buried in a lead coffin in the 17th century means that you were truly someone of importance. There have only been five of these coffins found in the Chesapeake area.

These coffins had been found at the location of the Brick Chapel in St. Mary’s City. At the time of our work, this area was essentially an open field. It had been used as a cornfield for centuries and there was no indication of what was there. We were called in after the lead coffins were discovered during an archaeological remote sensing survey to help identify who these people were.

When you look at a sealed-coffin burial, which is extremely rare for this time period—the 17th and 18th centuries—you can use different techniques to learn about this person. Insects and pollen that were sealed in the coffin along with the person can indicate the season in which they were buried. If we’re able to learn this information, it helps us link a burial to the historical records.

One of the people we identified in this set of coffins was Anne Wolsely Calvert, the wife of Governor Phillip Calvert and a very high-status woman in historic St. Mary’s City. She would have had all of the material benefits anyone could expect available in the colonies at that time. And this is reflected in her teeth, which are in very poor shape. She had lost many of them during her life, which is partly due to her advanced age. But I believe that she lost many of them as a result of being able to afford sugar, which was certainly not available to everyone at that time. This had a destructive effect on her teeth.

Because of her status, you could say that she was a lot better off than most people in the colonies. But it doesn’t mean that her life was easy. One of the things she suffered from was a very severe fracture of one of her thigh bones—her right femur. It’s a badly overriding fracture that shortened the length of her leg. It had healed on it own. Today, if you had this type of fracture, they’d take you to the hospital, put you in traction, give you muscle relaxers and set your leg with surgical screws. The best they could do for her at the time was bed rest and the bone healed itself the best it could. When this happened, she developed an abscess where the bone rejoined itself, causing a very painful infection. She lived with this for years.

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