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Behind the Scenes


This document provides an overview of the events and evidence leading to the discovery, identification, and determination of the cause of death for the young man discovered in the cellar at a site called Leavy Neck. Although this is an authentic recounting of the case, some technical information has been excluded for the sake of briefness. Unlike the Webcomic, this summary uses the actual names of people involved. The Webcomic characters are based on some of these individuals; only the characters are fictionalized.

Discovery of the Site

In 1991, archaeologist Dr. Al Luckenbach and his assistant, Esther Doyle Read, were invited by the owners of a sod farm to inspect one of the fields for artifacts. They walked over a recently plowed field adjacent to a silt-filled, tidewater creek of the Chesapeake Bay. The site was within the area known as Providence, the earliest European settlement in Anne Arundel County Maryland (1649). The two archaeologists were looking for remains from the lost dwellings and constructions associated with the settlement. As they walked over the area they picked up wrought nails, fragments of stoneware, and clay tobacco pipes.

Dr. Luckenbach returned to the site in 1999 with an archaeology team from the Lost Towns Project in Anne Arundel County. The group used ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer to reveal subsurface disturbances. They also made shovel test pits to select the best area for intensive excavation, which began in the spring of 2003. The team included more than two dozen volunteers, several interns, and staff from the Lost Towns Project.

Who Lived and Died on the Site?

The site is located on a tract of land that was surveyed (which determined boundaries) for William Fuller in 1659. Fuller had served as a Maryland parliamentary commissioner under Richard Bennett during Parliamentary rule in England. As an army Captain, he commanded the Puritan force in the Battle of the Severn (1655). This battle was the only action of the English Civil War on American soil. The battle involved the Puritan, or Protestant, settlers of Providence on one side and a larger group of Catholics from St. Mary's City on the other side. The Catholics were defeated and four Catholic prisoners of war were executed, possibly under an order given by Captain Fuller.

Fuller sold the property to Quaker brothers Hugh and Emmanuel Drue in 1662. Emmanuel set up a tobacco pipe kiln and began making pipes on the property. Hugh died this same year and Emmanuel subdivided the property, selling a 120 acre portion, which he called Leavy Neck, to William Neale. Neale was a planter, and most likely of English origin. Neale lived on the small plantation with his wife Suzannah, two daughters Suzanne and Providence, son Jonathan, and two unnamed indentured servants. Neale died in 1677; however, his plantation was passed down through the family in the following decades.

Dwelling Remains and a Date

Coin from Isle of Wight.  One side shows ship in harbor, the other includes the date 1664.
Figure 1. Isle of Wight Coin 1664 Depiction of a ship (left) New Port Isle of Wight 1664 (right)

The 2003 excavation revealed a circular soil stain in the first quadrant, known as Feature One. The archeologists recognized the soil characteristics as markers of the remains of a house cellar. Feature One was only 12 feet square. The small feature would have been located under the floorboards of a simple domestic dwelling. A common way of discarding household trash was to dump it into a cellar dug below the floorboards. The soil in Feature One was rich in ash (from a fireplace or hearth in the dwelling) and various types of trash. Many artifacts dating from 1655 to 1680 were uncovered, including a 1664 coin minted in the Isle of Wight, a piece of window lead stamped with a maker's mark and the date 1663, North Devon wares (pottery), lead-back tin glazed plates, tobacco pipe fragments, white metal buttons, and oyster and animal bone remains.

The window lead was dated and stamped at the time it was forged, which would closely correspond to when the house was constructed. Together with the 1664 coin, the window lead date means there was no house, cellar, or body earlier than 1663. This date is the terminus post quem for the grave, the earliest year the person could have been buried.

Figure 2.  Lead ribbon from a window with the date stamp 1663. (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Figure 2. Window lead stamped MASHAM 1663.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

The Body is Discovered

On August 19, 2003, a Lost Towns Project staff member, Erin Cullen, uncovered the top, or crown, of a human skull with one stroke of the trowel. This was the first time any member of the Lost Towns team had discovered any human remains in a trash pit, including more than two dozen similar trash pits dating from the 1660s through the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the body was uncovered, it became clear it was intentionally stuffed into the cellar pit. The shallow pit was too small for the body to rest in a laid-out position. The excavation showed the body was on its side with the legs bent. It had been pressed into the irregular shallow trench with enough force to displace one kneecap and curl the toes under, as they were pressed hard against the cellar wall.

Single large piece of a milk pan. This is a piece the shallow side and part of a bottom that would have been flat and almost as wide as the top.

Figure 3. Large piece of
milk pan from the site.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

One artifact stood out prominently in association with the body, a broken piece of a North Devon milk pan, which sat squarely on the ribcage. The person burying the body may have seen the broken milk pan sitting in the trash, picked up the broken half, and used it to compress the torso into the grave.

The large piece of pottery probably served as a make-shift shovel during the hasty attempt to dispose of the body. Microscopic examination of the bottom edge of the break shows dirt embedded in the broken edge and some smoothing/rounding of the edges, relative to the clean breaks on either side of this piece. (Kari Bruwelhide, 2017)

Setting the piece of milk pan on the body could have served two purposes - to dispose of evidence related to creating the clandestine burial and to shove the corpse into the small space. Once positioned, the body and piece of milk pan were covered with a thin layer of clay, possibly to hide it furrher. Knowingly, or perhaps unknowingly for some, people in the house continued to fill the cellar with trash after the body was buried.

The skeleton as it was buried in the cellar with knees bent and milk pan on top of the rib cage.

Figure 4. Skeleton in the cellar in situ.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

A typical 17th century burial in this region would be in an evenly dug grave, outdoors, often in a public graveyard. Bodies buried formally were typically not in ordinary clothing, but wrapped in shrouds - simple burial clothes - or placed in wooden coffins. No buttons or personal artifacts were found with the body, but the deceased was likely buried in work clothes held together by rope or other organic fasteners. Textiles will disintegrate without a trace when given enough time, buried in the damp, low-lying, clayey soils. Evidence from the burial alone - minimal grave preparation and very private burial in a highly unusual place - point to foul play.

Over a two-month period, all the soil over the skeleton was carefully removed and screened leaving the underlying soil supporting the bones. The excavation team invited Dr. Doug Owsley, a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist, and his colleagues to the site to document the body in situ and to advise on removing it from the pit. The remaining soil supporting the skeleton was removed and the bones carefully collected. They were taken to the Anne Arundel County Archaeology Lab in Annapolis, Maryland. After cleaning and inventory, the remains were transferred to Dr. Owsley at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The bones fom the skeleton laid out on its back (known as the anatomic position).

Figure 5. Skeleton in the cellar arranged in anatomical position.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

The Forensic Evidence: a Wretched Life and Violent Death

Dr. Owsley's team examined the remains for forensic evidence and found a number of telling clues about who the person was and how they died. The skeleton was examined to determine age, sex, ancestry.

The body matched the developmental growth pattern of a male, about 16 years old, of European descent. The incomplete growth of the long bones and teeth, and the shape of the pelvis and skull were clues to this identification.


From birth to adulthood, bones and teeth grow at fairly standard rates. Areas of bone growth are marked by unjoined epiphyses (ends of the bony shafts) and diaphyses (the shaft itself). In the teenage years these pieces unite and growth stops. Different bones in the skeleton complete growth at differnt ages. Therefore, scientists can determine which bones have completed grown and which have not to estimate the age of an individual.

The long bones of the skeleton in the cellar were in various states of fusion - see Activity: Identify the Age for more detail.


Proximal end of the humerus.
Figure 6. Proximal left humerus of the skeleton in the cellar; note the gap (growth plate) between the epiphysis at the top end of the humerus and the shaft.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Figure 7. Multiple x-rays of upper and lower jaws of the skeleton in the cellar (frontal and side views).

Figure 7. Upper (maxillae) and lower (mandible) jaws of the skeleton in the cellar. (
Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Just as bone growth is incomplete in adolescents, so is tooth growth and eruption. The last teeth to complete growth are the third molars ("wisdom teeth"). The two smaller images on the right show these teeth have not completely erupted and their tooth roots are slightly more than half formed. The activity Identify the Age has more detail.

The left and right hip bones had features most like males. Another activity, Skeleton: Male or Female, provides more details.

Part of the pelvic bone of the skeleton.  Part of the pelvic bone of the skeleton.  The sciatic arch is narrow and the auricular surface is realtively smooth.

Figure 8. Pelvic bone of the skeleton in the cellar.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Despite his young age, some of the features of the skull identified him as a male (prominent brow ridge, low sloping forehead) and of European origin.

Frontal and side views of the skull.

Figure 9. Skull of the skeleton in the cellar.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Analysis of the of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic ratios in the bone was consistent with a diet that included mostly wheat, a European staple. Lack of isotopic evidence for an American, corn-based diet suggests the boy was a recent immigrant, and not someone born in Maryland or a long term resident.

Bones of the boy's skeleton showed evidence of infection during life, and caries (i.e., cavities) in 19 teeth, plus seven dental abscesses would have further weakened this young man's immune system.

The vertebrae exhibit abnormal porosity (bone loss) and the lytic activity (bone loss) from infection. In the left figure, the vertebra in the middle also shows bone destruction from infection and compression of the vertebral body from hard labor.

Two sets of vertebrae from the skeleton in the cellar are stacked one on top of the other. There are small holes in these bones.

Figure 10. Vertebrae from the spine of the skeleton in the cellar showing abnormal porosity and lytic destruction.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

The teeth in the upper and lower jaws (maxilla and mandible, respectively) reflect poor health and nutrition. Several tooth crowns are destroyed by decay, opening up the pulp chamber to bacteria, leading to infection and abcessing. (Figure 11).

In the front teeth (Figure 12), cavities have formed in areas of weakened enamel, the result of poor nutrition in childhood.

Upper and lower jaws showing teeth, including some damage (from cavities and other problems) and several missing.

Figure 11. Occlusal views of the upper and lower jaws from the skeleton in the cellar.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Front teeth showing decay.

Figure 12. Front teeth of the skeleton in the cellar.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Hard, repetitive labor, particularly during adolescent growth, marked the skeleton at muscle attachment sites. In the arm bone, this is expressed as a cortical defect or irregularity in the bone surce on the proximal end (image on the right).

Two views of the complete humerus and the proximal end shown above.

Figure 13. Left humerus and proximal humerus of the skeleton in the cellar.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Heavy loads carried on the shoulders and back have compressed the spine changed several vertebrae. A total of eleven vertebrae (eight thoracic and three lumbar) recovered from the skeleton in the cellar had disk herniations (Schmorl's depressions) in their superior and/or inferior endplates.

Figure 14. Vertebrae showing Schmorl's depressions in their proximal and/or inferior endplates (herniated disks).

Figure 14. Five vertebrae from the skeleton in the cellar show Schmorl's depressions in their superior endplates due to the compression of the spine.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

The most telling piece of evidence related to the death of this individual is recorded in the broken bones of the right hand and wrist. These injuries are significant not because they would have been fatal, but because they indicate trauma at the end of the boy's life. Fractures were noted in the distal right radius and two other bones of the wrist and hand. Together, the perimortem fractures in the right wrist suggest a defense wound.

Right radius with styloid process missing. Two images are included: the complete bone and a closeup both in the anatomical position (thumb would have pointed out to the right).

Figure 15. Overview (above, left) and closeup of the right radius of the skeleton in the cellar showing a diagonal fracture. Also notice the longitudinal break running into the shaft.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Distal view of right radius with styloid process missing (broken off); complete bone and closeup view from the opposite side of anatomical position.

Figure 16. Overview (above, left) and closeup of the right radius of the skeleton in the cellar (view from the other side of the bone).
(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

The hand and wrist fractures did not heal, which indicates trauma around the time of death ("perimortem"). Notice the clean diagonal break at the distal end of the radius. The pattern of fracturing is consistent with a forceful blow to the hand held in a defensive position, to block a blow, for example. This type of fracture would not have resulted from stopping one's self during a fall; it more likely resulted from the right hand and wrist being struck with considerable force by a hard object. (See Evidence_of_trauma.htm for more details about this type of injury.)

Final Conclusions

From the features of this young man's bones - his age and sex, his ancestry and immigrant status, and evidence of a lifetime of hard physical labor and poor health - anthropologists have concluded that the skeletal remains likely belonged to a young indentured servant. The archaeological dating points to the time when William Neale owned the land and the historical records indicate two indentured servants under his charge. The boy in the cellar had not lived in Maryland long before his death and clearly had a hard life prior to coming to the Chesapeake. Like some indentures servants, he may have begun his servitude as early as 12 years old. He may have been an orphan, a street boy, a criminal, or just unluckily born into a disadvantaged family. Whoever he was, he worked hard, was treated poorly at the time of his death, and was buried secretly and forgotten. It is likely this weakened boy died in an act of violence - a fate not common, but certainly not unheard of for the indentured servant in the Chesapeake. Either way, his master or someone in the household may have had an interest in concealing his death and one can imagine complicity among the household members living over his remains.