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Pity the original British settlers in the New World. Their first attempt at a permanent colony in Roanoke, Va., in 1585, well, just sort of disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to those poor people.
The second settlement at Jamestown in 1607 survived, but only after a horrendous toll in hardship and death. Colonists there established themselves on a swampy island in the James River 60 miles upstream from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. They had no source of clean drinking water, since the river was brackish from the sea, and they were beset by disease, starvation, angry Algonquian Indians, the worst drought in 700 years, lazy English “gentlemen” and the constant fear of Spanish attack. It was a hard time. By spring 1610, only 60 of the original 500 colonists at Jamestown still lived.
So don’t be surprised when researchers digging at the site unearth bones that tell dark tales.
UM hired one of those researchers, Ashley McKeown, as an assistant professor last summer. She has a lot of titles: physical anthropologist, skeletal biologist, bio-archaeologist — even “expert on old bones.”
The Georgia native did her postdoctoral work with the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project. Her position was funded by bestselling crime and mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell, whose book “The Last Precinct” involves a 400-year-old murder mystery in Jamestown.
Starting in 2000, McKeown helped excavate 75 burial sites in a “haphazard” cemetery found beneath the foundations of the original colonial statehouse. Some graves contained bodies jumbled together or in odd positions, as if they were simply thrown into the ground.
“This might indicate people were afraid to touch the bodies,” McKeown says. “It might mean disease, which would make sense since we believe the cemetery dates to the 1609-10 ‘starving time.’”
actually lived at Jamestown for a year and a half while the bodies
were excavated — all to learn more about how these first settlers
lived and died. She’s seen a lot of weird things, but the strangest
Jamestown bone was unearthed last summer — not in the cemetery,
but at the site of what was once a trash-filled ditch, or bulwark
trench, which surrounded the original James Fort, built in 1607.
For a bone expert like McKeown, the braincase fragment tells a macabre tale. First, a notch and radiating fractures show that whomever the bone belonged to was struck behind the left ear with a hard object.
“It wasn’t something super-sharp, like a knife,” she says. “We are thinking of something along the lines of a stone celt, which is sort of an axe-like stone cleaver. If that’s the case, it was likely of Native origin.”
also says the skull probably came from a man since it has large protuberances
on it, which are needed to support larger male muscle attachments.
“This bone is the earliest evidence of surgery in the English colonies,” McKeown says. “It’s a remarkable find.”
Drilling into someone’s skull, or trepanation, is an ancient procedure. McKeown says there is evidence of trepanation in prehistoric times, and it has been used by many people around the world, including New World surgeons before European settlement.
“With some prehistoric finds you’ll see healed trepanations,” she says. “It had to have some sort of success rate for people to keep doing it and for it to be so widespread.”
She says the Jamestown bone has circular markings that match trepanation tools from the era. The bone also shows a skip, where the drill jumped and the surgeon had to start again.
Ouch! And it gets weirder. McKeown says the fragment also has saw marks. After the poor fellow died, someone wanted to see what went wrong. So the surgeon sawed off the top of the cranial vault, which McKeown says is pretty typical for an autopsy.
“So this also is the first evidence of an autopsy in the European colonies,” she says.
Pity those original settlers. For not only did they fight disease, starvation and hostile Indians, they also contended with the barber/surgeons of the day — men who thought bleeding could cure most ills. Needless to say, the skills of these healers varied wildly.
shows they tried to do a trepanation on the thickest bone in the cranial vault,” McKeown
says. “It’s absolutely the worst
place to do this.”
“And that’s just one of the wonderful things about working in historical archaeology,” McKeown says. “You get to use historical documentation as well as archaeological evidence, and sometimes you can make some really wonderful connections.”
While the autopsy bone was an extraordinarily interesting find — getting exposure from CNN and the History Channel — McKeown says her research team is only halfway through analysis of the statehouse cemetery remains. The research is providing a profile of the early fort’s population, including sex, ancestry, general health, cause of death, burial customs and perhaps socioeconomic conditions at the fort.
“We’ve found few artifacts but lots of skeletal material,” she says. “There are graves where people are just thrown in, but some burials are very neatly laid out. These people were undressed when they died and wrapped in a linen shroud. If you were wealthy, then you got placed in a coffin.”
ravaged the settlers? McKeown said it might
have been several, especially since
the English may have fouled their
drinking water with sewage from the fort. The
remains of black rats also have been
found, and Jamestown leader John
Smith wrote of rats getting into the corn.
McKeown says researchers suspect
bubonic plague — the Black Death — came
with the settlers on their ships.
“There is one report of a man who actually killed his wife and then smoked her to survive the winter,” she says. “They called it ‘powdering,’ and this guy powdered his wife. But in the spring he was discovered, and he was hanged.”
Though McKeown’s efforts to discover the lost mysteries of Jamestown continue — she was back in Virginia over Christmas break — she says it was a no-brainer for her to move west to UM and Montana.
“I love my research,” she says, “but I also love teaching and interacting with students. But I’m sure I’ll be back in Virginia during the summers to find more bones with interesting stories.”