Finding the Evidence
We discover bones every day. Sometimes they emerge as archaeologists locate and excavate gravesites, but many finds are unexpected. Unmarked burials, and even trash dumps or old wells, may hold skeletal evidence.
Scientists find answers about people and events in bones and teeth. This skeletal evidence, together with written and cultural records, unlocks a new, more intimate way to look at the past, and introduces us to actual people who made history.
Context is Crucial
Excavators have only one chance to collect the evidence. All excavation is destructive, moving bones and artifacts from their original, buried positions. Once the remains are rearranged or removed, their context is lost if it is not painstakingly recorded.
Like detectives, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists gather as much evidence as possible. For each set of remains, they assemble a case file. Documenting a skeleton's discovery and recovery requires careful observation, patience, and hard work.
Clues in the Burial
A burial marks an exact point in time, and preserves information not only about the deceased but also about those who buried the body—their beliefs, customs, and daily lives. Formal burials reflect culturally prescribed ways to show respect for the deceased, as well as a means to dispose of the dead.
Bones found in even the most unlikely places hold clues. Chesapeake burials sometimes reveal corpses hurriedly placed in shallow pits, with little attention paid to positioning the body. On rare occasions, archaeologists find bones in trash pits, old wells, or cellars.
- What questions do anthropologists ask about burials?
- What can burials tell us about settlement patterns?
- Chesapeake colonists buried almost all human remains in graves. More than 99 percent of the 17th-century remains recovered so far reveal ritual burial. Discover the differences between burials in two Chesapeake settlements.
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