Written in Bone by Sally M. Walker

Written in BoneWritten in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
Sally M. Walker
Carolrhoda Books, $22.95
144 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0822571353

Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews

In this thoroughly researched exploration of forensic anthropology digs of colonial sites in Virginia and Maryland, Sally M. Walker makes a complex subject readable and accessible to older children. In Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland, she details the painstaking steps of forensic anthropology investigations — for example, it took two whole years for scientists to develop a plan to approach colonial lead caskets that had been unearthed beneath what remained of a Catholic church because they were so rare — and reveals exactly how and why these scientists do their work and what they learn.

Walker shadows the investigations of several sets of colonial era remains, which based upon the investigative work profiled in the book, are likely to be a colonial teenager, an English captain, a poor soul likely to be an abused indentured servant, a well-to-do Maryland family found in lead caskets, and those buried in what was likely an early colonial African American cemetery (they may have been slaves, indentured servants or free colonists). Vivid close up photographs accompany detailed writing that shows exactly how scientists come the conclusions they do, from assessing bone conditions and fractures (for example, have any fractures healed at all or do they look "fresh," meaning they were new or recent at time of death?) to soil conditions and placement of the remains. Historical documents, along with cutting-edge science that reveals about how long English colonists might have lived in North America and consumed a corn-based diet, combine to reveal a comprehensive look at early English colonists’ culture, lifestyle and more.

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Walker’s book is never sensational; it’s clear that everyone working on these projects holds the utmost respect for those people whose lives they are investigating. Walker’s interviews with the forensic anthropologists working on these projects round out the historical and the reporting aspects of the narrative. There are numerous physical, scientific, and historical challenges to be addressed, and the rewards are great, giving voice to people who might have had none in life and learning more about how early colonists lived their daily lives. An extensive bibliography and list of sources and websites for more information round out the book nicely, giving readers many places to go to continue their reading on the subject if they want to.

Middle and high school students with any kind of interest in forensics, American history or anthropology are likely to find Written in Bone an utterly fascinating read.

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