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Living and Dying in America

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

Lives Cut Short
Chapel Burials
Settling In

In 1992, archaeologists recovered the remains of an infant buried beneath the floor of the 17th-century Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City, Maryland. A small lead-sheathed coffin indicated that the baby belonged to a prominent family, but investigators had only the bones and burial clues to tell the child's story.

A Victim of the Times

A good colonial mother wrapped her baby in linen swaddling clothes or quilted, embroidered bands, which held the child's hands and feet in place. Then she placed the bundled baby in a pocket with a board back, and covered its head and ears with a cap. Swaddled babies stayed warm but received very little sunlight.

numerous openings in the cranium
Abnormal mineralization of the bone due to rickets caused these holes. Historic St. Mary's City. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Neither wealth nor careful childcare could save this very sickly baby. The infant was suffering from serious conditions that the doctors of the time did not understand nor know how to treat. This case points to the plight of many children in the colonial Chesapeake.

Skeletal Evidence

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies leave clear markers in bone. This infant was suffering from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency. The skull (shown at left), ribs, and long bones show changes due to rickets. Chronic diarrhea probably aggravated the baby's malnutrition. Some features of the pelvis and skull — small teeth, pointed chin, and jaw line — led some investigators to think this infant was female, but the indentification of sex remains tentative, and DNA tests were inconclusive.

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Evidence at the Scene

the infant's lead coffin and two others
The infant's lead coffin and two others. ca. 1680s, Brick Chapel, St. Mary's City, Maryland. Historic St. Mary's City. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Analysis of pollen in the grave reveals that the death took place in spring — supporting evidence that the baby had been swaddled during the winter. The burial was elaborate. Pins and traces of linen indicated that the body was placed in a shroud and then in a costly lead coffin buried in a place of honor beneath the chapel floor. Most intriguing, the infant's coffin lay beside two larger lead coffins. The names of the adult male and female they held were unknown at discovery.

Circumstantial Evidence

Forensic investigation later identified the adults as the colony's chancellor and governor, Philip Calvert, and his first wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert. Births, deaths, and marriages were rarely recorded in the colonial Chesapeake. Historical records on infants or children are virtually nonexistent, even for those born to families of high social status. Because Anne Wolseley Calvert was at least 60 at her death, and this baby was buried after her, the infant could not have been hers. It was most likely a child born to Philip Calvert and his second wife, Jane Sewell.

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