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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Living and Dying in America


Difficult Births
 
Was This Baby Swaddled to Death?
 
Colonial Medicine
 
Pottery,
Pewter, & Poison

 
Lives Cut Short
 
Chapel Burials
 
Settling In

Jesuits built Maryland’s first major brick building—a chapel at St. Mary’s City. Constructed in the 1660s, it stood less than half a century. In 1704, Maryland’s Protestant royal governor closed the Brick Chapel. A few years later, the Jesuits demolished it to use the materials in nearby St. Inigoes mission. The Brick Chapel has now been reconstructed on the foundation below.

The exposed foundation of the Brick Chapel.
The exposed foundation of the Brick Chapel. Image courtesy: Historic St. Mary's City

A burial from the chapel field, with rare preserved wood from the coffin lid over the skull.
A burial from the chapel field, with rare preserved wood from the coffin lid over the skull. Image courtesy: Historic St. Mary's City

 

Archaeologists began explorations three centuries later on behalf of Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), the Maryland state museum at the site of the colony’s first capital. In 1983, they found the Brick Chapel’s foundation. Five years of investigation began in 1988, led by Henry Miller and Timothy Riordan. The team located the cemetery and excavated 68 burials. Smithsonian forensic anthropologists analyzed the remains. It was the first large systematic study of 17th-century skeletons and burial practices in the Chesapeake. Watch a video about the extraordinary discoveries at this archeological site.

Locations of graves inside the Brick Chapel
Key to locations. Image courtesy: Historic St. Mary's City

Locations of graves inside the Brick Chapel

Following European tradition, the colonists placed burials under the chapel floor, as well as in the surrounding churchyard or field. Seven burials inside the chapel have been excavated. Color variations in upper soil layers indicate where the grave shafts lie.

Take a closer look at the key at right.

Proper Burials

A burial inside the Brick Chapel, excavated in the winter of 2007
A burial inside the Brick Chapel, excavated in the winter of 2007. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution. (Enlarged image available.)

Standard English burial practices soon appeared in the Chesapeake as immigrants brought these customs with them. Preparations for burial included removing the clothing, washing the body, and wrapping it in a shroud or winding-sheet, which was sewn, pinned, or tied in place. As coffins became more popular, specific clothing came into use for burial—usually a cap (sometimes with a chin strap to hold the jaw closed) and a gown or shirt.

In the chapel cemetery, there are both shroud and coffin burials. The graves can be sorted into three time periods. In the early graves, fewer than half were coffin burials. By mid-century, every body was placed in a coffin. These changing burial patterns paralleled mortuary ritual in England.

Discover how the burial at left holds clues to 17th-century burial practices.

 

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