Written in Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland

About the Book

Bright white teeth. Straight leg bones. Awk­ward­ly con­tort­ed arm bones. On a hot sum­mer day in 2005, Dr. Dou­glas Owsley of the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion peered into an exca­vat­ed grave, care­ful­ly exam­in­ing the frag­ile skele­ton that had been buried there for four hun­dred years. “He was about fif­teen years old when he died. And he was Euro­pean,” Owsley con­clud­ed. But how did he know? Just as foren­sic sci­en­tists use their knowl­edge of human remains to help solve crimes, they use sim­i­lar skills to solve the mys­ter­ies of the long-ago past. Join me as I work along­side the sci­en­tists inves­ti­gat­ing colo­nial-era graves near Jamestown, Vir­ginia, as well as oth­er sites in Mary­land. As you fol­low their inves­ti­ga­tions, I’ll intro­duce you to what sci­en­tists believe are the lives of a teenage boy, a ship’s cap­tain, an inden­tured ser­vant, a colo­nial offi­cial and his fam­i­ly, and an enslaved African girl. All are reach­ing beyond the grave to tell us their sto­ries, which are writ­ten in bone.

Behind the Book

When I was grow­ing up, the lives of colo­nial Amer­i­cans fas­ci­nat­ed me. As my fam­i­ly vis­it­ed places such as Williams­burg, Jamestown, and Val­ley Forge, I often imag­ined what it was like to live back then. I won­dered what the peo­ple were like—how they looked and what activ­i­ties they did.

Writ­ten in Bone tells the sto­ries of eight colonists—their lives, deaths, and their place in our country’s his­to­ry. Even though these peo­ple left lit­tle or no writ­ten record of their live, archae­ol­o­gists and foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gists have learn­ing about their lives by read­ing and reveal­ing the sto­ries that life and death have writ­ten in their bones. From these tales I dis­cov­ered how tru­ly tough life was in those days and gained great respect and admi­ra­tion for the many dif­fer­ent peo­ples whose sac­ri­fices ulti­mate­ly led to the birth of the Unit­ed States. I have tried to cap­ture the remark­able sto­ries of these peo­ple in Writ­ten in Bone.

Awards and Recognition

  • Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion (ALA) Notable Book
  • ALA/YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
  • Ben­jamin Franklin Award 2010
  • Chica­go Pub­lic Library Best of the Best Book
  • Coop­er­a­tive Chil­dren’s Book Cen­ter Choic­es 2010
  • Cybils final­ist
  • Moon­beam Chil­dren’s Book Award, Bronze Medal
  • NCTE Orbis Pic­tus Award for Out­stand­ing Non­fic­tion for Chil­dren, rec­om­mend­ed book
  • NCSS/CBC Notable Social Stud­ies Trade Book for Young People
  • Nation­al Sci­ence Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion Out­stand­ing Sci­ence Trade Books
  • School Library Jour­nal Best Book
  • Sci­ence Books & Films Best Books
  • Soci­ety of School Librar­i­ans Inter­na­tion­al hon­or book in Social Stud­ies 2009
  • TAYSHAS Read­ing List
  • Texas Library Asso­ci­a­tion Lone Star Read­ing List
  • YALSA Excel­lence in Non­fic­tion for Young Adults Award finalist


 “ The text suc­cinct­ly explains com­plex foren­sic con­cepts, such as deter­min­ing the gen­der and age of a skele­ton, or whether a skull rep­re­sents a per­son orig­i­nat­ing from Europe or Africa. Cap­tioned, full-col­or pho­tographs of skele­tal, den­tal, and arti­fac­tu­al remains shed light on colo­nial life. His­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, illus­trat­ed maps, and anatom­i­cal draw­ings com­ple­ment images of var­i­ous spe­cial­ists at work in the field. Pho­tographs of reen­ac­tors per­form­ing peri­od tasks, such as grind­ing corn, pro­vide insight into the dai­ly life of the recov­ered indi­vid­u­als. Though oth­er recent vol­umes dis­cuss foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gy, such as James M. Deem’s Bod­ies from the Ice (Houghton, 2008), Writ­ten in Bone casts a mag­ni­fy­ing glass on the hard­ships and real­i­ties of colo­nial life so often roman­ti­cized in Amer­i­can lore.” (School Library Jour­nal, starred review)

 “This unusu­al vol­ume, sug­gest­ed to Walk­er by a sci­en­tist at the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion, dips into Amer­i­can his­to­ry to intro­duce the work of foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gists. Focus­ing on colo­nial-era sites in the Chesa­peake Bay region, the large-for­mat book pro­vides detailed dis­cus­sions and  intrigu­ing close-up views of the grave exca­va­tions at Jamestown, Vir­ginia, as well as in three Mary­land loca­tions: Prov­i­dence, St. Mary’s City, and Harleigh Knoll. With pre­ci­sion of her own,Walker describes the metic­u­lous work of the archae­ol­o­gists and oth­er sci­en­tists who study skele­tal remains, using phys­i­cal clues as indi­ca­tors of a skeleton’s sex, age, birth­place, sta­tion in soci­ety, and length of time in the colonies. They com­bine trained obser­va­tion, back­ground knowl­edge, and sci­en­tif­ic exper­tise with detec­tive skills to illu­mi­nate facets of our his­to­ry; the final chap­ter dis­cuss­es how foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gy has con­tributed to his­to­ri­ans’ under­stand­ing of colo­nial times. Near­ly every page car­ries at least one illus­tra­tion, usu­al­ly a col­or pho­to but some­times a help­ful dia­gram, a map, or a peri­od doc­u­ment or print. Back mat­ter includes source notes, a source bib­li­og­ra­phy, a time line, and lists of rec­om­mend­ed books and Inter­net sites. The read­ing lev­el is rel­a­tive­ly high and the quan­ti­ty of detailed infor­ma­tion is not for every­one, but those intrigued by foren­sics and his­to­ry will find this absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing.” (Book­list, starred review)

Written in Bone

writ­ten by Sal­ly M. Walk­er
Car­ol­rho­da Books, Jan 2009
hard­cov­er: 978–0822571353
paper­back: 978–0545068321
112 pages, ages 11 and up

Buy the Book