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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.


archaeologist, Ruth Mitchell
Archaeologist Ruth Mitchell excavates a burial from Historic St. Mary's City, MD. Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Institution

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.

a burial inside the wall's of the 17-century brick chapel and st. mary's city
Image courtesy of: Smithsonian Instiution

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.



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