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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Difficult Lives

 

The Bondservants' Bargain
 
Hard Evidence of Heavy Toil
 
Proof of Burden
 
Pleasure of a Pipe
 

Bones bear the burden of proof in telling the unwritten stories of the Chesapeake’s colonial history.

 

In many cases, a skeleton embodies the proof of many burdens. These remains represent the thousands upon whose backs early America was built—the men, women, and children, immigrant and American-born, who were small landowners, tenant farmers, bondservants, and slaves.

Thoracic vertebrae of a young adult male, with herniated disks from a lifetime of lifting and carrying heavy loads.
 
Thoracic vertebrae of a young adult male, with herniated disks from a lifetime of lifting and carrying heavy loads, ca. 1660-1680, Patuxent Point site, Calvert County, Maryland.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

Schmorl’s depression
— herniated disk

illustration of a herniated disk
 
Illustration of a herniated disk.  Image courtesy of: Michael K. Sracic, M.D.

Spinal column defects reflect excessive physical strain and activity. Traumatic and heavy loading can compress the spine, producing hollowed depressions in the vertebrae as the tissue of the disks bulges into the bone.

Vertical compression, if severe enough, can also cause “wedging” of the vertebrae, eventually leading to a stooped posture.  The thoracic vertebrae, pictured above, are of a young adult male with herniated disks from a lifetime of lifting and carrying heavy loads.

Spondylolysis
—vertebral stress fracture

Illustration of a vertebral stress fracture.
 
Illustration of a vertebral stress fracture.  Image courtesy of: Michael K. Sracic, M.D.

Although individuals may be predisposed genetically to these fatigue fractures of the vertebral arch, a triggering trauma or frequent stress on the lower back, such as repeated bending, is required for fracturing to occur.

Lumbar vertebrae of a 55- to 60-year-old female, with a stress fracture from a lifetime of bending at the waist.
 
Lumbar vertebrae of a 55- to 60-year-old female, with a stress fracture from a lifetime of bending at the waist, ca. 1660-1680, Patuxent Point site, Calvert County, Maryland.  Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

 

 

 

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