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How and where a person was buried tells us not only about the deceased but also about the society that conducted the burial ritual.


At some Chesapeake sites, archaeologists have seen “unusual” burial contexts. Parts of skeletons have been recovered from wells or trash pits, bodies from cellars. During times of distress, the dead were buried two or more to a grave. At St. Mary’s City, the chapel cemetery shows more typical burial practices and changes in burial ritual as English settlement in the Chesapeake matured.

Differences between burials at Jamestown, Virginia
and St. Mary’s City, Maryland are striking.



  • The early burials at Jamestown took place between 1607 and 1630. Most of the remains were young adult males.


St. Mary’s City

  • The burials in the chapel and churchyard span a century, from 1635 to about 1740. The cemetery contains more women, children, and older adults than Jamestown.


  • Burial rituals and orientation of the graves were inconsistent.
  • Nearly all of the graves faced east, with the bodies extended on the back with face up, head at the west end, hands placed on the pelvis or along the sides of the body.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of the bodies buried before 1630 were placed in coffins.
  • During the first 30 years, almost half the bodies were buried in coffins. By the middle of the 17th century, all adults were.


  • Some bodies were buried quickly, still clothed.


  • No one was buried in regular clothing.


  • Some bones were found outside of graves.
  • No skeletal remains other than teeth have been found in non-purposeful burials.

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