Review: Written In Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Carolrhoda Books. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: Skeletons from the colonial era reveal details of the past; not just how people died, but how they lived. Walker follows the excavation of several graves, along with the study and research that accompanies each discovery. “Who were these people? What were their lives like?”

The Good: Non fiction books like this are so easy to booktalk — dead bodies! Photographs of skeletons! Mysterious deaths! I love the mystery, the exploration, and the answers that come from science, study, research.

Walker uses a handful of bodies to not just show the science but also to explore the history and lives of those Europeans and Africans who lived in the Virginia and Maryland region in the 1600s and 1700s. The book is full of photographs of the bodies, at all stages of study. How the bones and remains are studied and tested are explained, often with photographs or illustrations. Walker explains in a note that she limited the subject of this book to Europeans and Africans, “not to diminish the importance of Native Americans in the history of the Chesapeake region, but rather to respect the desire of their descendants to see their remains treated in a manner that respects their cultural customs.”

I adore this type of history and scientific study. For example, as a result of variations in diet, the carbon-13 found in bones can be measured and analyzed to determine where a person was born, raised, and how long that person had lived in North America. Often these graves are so old that there are no headstones or markers, so there is no direct way to know who the person was or when they died. Walker shows the process of how the historical record is used to try to pinpoint a person’s identity. Sometimes, a name is attached to a body; other times, not so much.

One section examined three lead coffins found in what would have been the area under St. Mary’s Chapel. Walker used this find to explain that the colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a safe haven for English Catholics. This is something that is often found in history books; Walker provides the “rest of the story” that isn’t often included, that religious freedom in Maryland ended in 1689. The lead coffins are a sign that those individuals were wealthy Catholics. Important people to get such an internment; yet, with the passage of time, the building disappeared and people forgot that bodies were even buried there. 

The second grave that fascinates me was a body found in the basement of a house, a hasty burial without coffin or respect. Did you know that sometimes people used their cellars not to store food but as a trash dump? An archaeologist explains, “people lived upstairs and dumped fish parts and pig parts and chamber pot contents and goodness knows what else down there.”

Imagine that. Imagine dumping that refuse in your cellar. Wouldn’t it smell? How healthy would that be? Why would you do that? And then I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books where the Ingalls were snowed in for days and days and days. As a grown up rereading the series, I’d wondered, where did they put the trash? Go to the bathroom? Is that why a basement was used as a trash pit? And then… as the chapter reveals… a body was buried in the basement. Treated like garbage. Hidden. Unknown. For hundreds of years, until the secret was revealed. What was it like, to live in that house? To know that body was there?

Written in Bone was also an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kelly at Stacked also geeks out over the science and history. Also check out fellow history lover Melissa Rabey’s review.

7 thoughts on “Review: Written In Bone

  1. This is one I’ve talked to both middle and high school students, and it always intrigues readers. When I read it, I didn’t think it was my kind of book but it’s as engrossing as you’ve described. And it totally sells itself.


  2. It makes for a good book club selection as well. I do a lunch time club with my public library colleague. We try to include one non-fiction title and Written in Bone was our choice a year or so ago. The kids went wild over it. When it went on to become a YALSA Non-fiction finalist, they were very proud about it.



  3. You’ve totally sold me on this one. Whenever I’m watching Bones, I always wonder how real the science is – this sounds like a great way to find out!


  4. Kelly, nonfiction with the right topic, title and photos/illustrations does sell itself. I’m glad to hear you’re including NF in booktalking. I know I didn’t always include those titles.

    Brenda, isn’t it fun when the book you & your teens have “discovered” is recognized? It’s like “we knew that before you did!”

    Emily, so funny you mention Bones! I watch that also, and yes, I could totally see Temperance doing this stuff.


  5. So glad to see you talking this one up! I saw the exhibit at the Smithsonian last year, and it was fascinating. I don’t know that I would have picked up the book and read it otherwise, but wow, was I glad I did! Wonderful presentation of science for non-scientists of any age.


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