Prehistoric Ossuaries: A Personal Journey

by Dennis C. Curry, Chief Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

It’s funny how things work.  Some 20 years ago, in response to requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the archeology staff was compiling an inventory of human remains curated at MHT.  During that process, the extreme complexities of ossuary remains and sites led me to look at these unique features in Maryland.  The ultimate result was a book, Feast of the Dead: Aboriginal Ossuaries in Maryland.  Then about a decade ago I was asked to write a book chapter that would look at ossuaries from throughout the entire Middle Atlantic region.  Although that book project eventually died, I reworked my chapter and submitted it as an article to the journal Archaeology of Eastern North America, where it was recently published.  Below are some highlights.

Ossuaries are communal graves.  They are also secondary graves, meaning that the deceased were originally buried in individual graves before being exhumed and reinterred in a collective burial.  Early historical accounts of Huron ossuary burials (such as those by 17th century French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf) describe an elaborate burial ceremony referred to as the “Feast of the Dead.”  And while early explorers in the Middle Atlantic region do not mention ossuaries (they describe individual burials, and the deposition of “king’s” bodies in charnel houses), I think watercolorist John White inadvertently depicted an ossuary at the North Carolina village of Secotan in 1585.  There, he portrays a small plot (B) “where they assemble themselves to make their solemn prayers;” it is topped by a ceremonial fire and surrounded by wooden posts carved with human faces, and it is adjacent to a structure (A) “wherein are the tombs of their kings and princes.”  Each of these characteristics has been documented archeologically at various ossuary sites.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by
accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

One advantage to looking at ossuary sites from a large region (the core of the Middle Atlantic runs from Cape Henlopen, Delaware to Cape Fear, North Carolina) is that trends start to appear.  One thing that I noticed throughout the region was that ossuaries consistently occur in one of three settings: in isolated locations, within village sites, and within what appear to be defined “cemetery areas.”  The latter really intrigued me.  I looked at 27 primary sites from the region, and 16 of these contained cemetery areas consisting of multiple ossuaries; these ossuaries range in number from 2 to 13, and total more than 60.  In most cases, these multiple ossuaries are fairly tightly clustered, yet they never intrude into each other.  (Similarly, in village settings, ossuaries are not disturbed by other village features or structures.)  This makes me think that ossuaries—which were sometimes re-opened and re-used—were clearly marked and maintained on the landscape, probably often visited and esteemed by the local population.  It also makes me think that there are many ossuaries that have not yet been found.  Today, most ossuaries are found by accident, usually exposed during construction activities, and when I visit such finds, I often wonder how many more ossuaries are there, just beneath my feet.  Recently, I got a partial answer to that question.  A Maryland county was looking to develop one of its properties…a property on which several ossuaries had been found in the past.  Since I was convinced there was a “cemetery area” at this location, we recommended that the county undertake a non-destructive ground-penetrating radar survey of the area.  The results obtained by geophysical archeologist Dr. Tim Horsley were spectacular: clear indication of at least 8 more ossuaries on the property!  Yes, indeed, this was a “cemetery area.”

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

During the course of my study of Middle Atlantic ossuaries, many other patterns emerged.  Some of these include:

  • Ossuaries vary in size from just a few individuals to more than 600; the average is around 70 people.
  • The largest ossuaries tend to occur in the tidewater Potomac region of Maryland and Virginia, where a dozen ossuaries average nearly 250 people each.
  • The earliest ossuaries contain no associated artifacts.  Later, when artifacts do appear, they are usually non-utilitarian and decorative in nature.
  • The most common artifacts are beads (initially shell, then copper, then glass and/or a combination of types).  One Virginia ossuary contained 35,000 shell and glass beads, but that is unique.
  • Notably, artifacts are often associated with the remains of children.
  • Artifacts may also indicate the social status of individuals, such as a presumed “shaman’s kit” from a North Carolina ossuary, and a possible copper headdress from one in Maryland.
  • Specific treatment of remains (for example, extended articulated burials, or cremations) may also suggest social differentiation of individuals.  In fact, I have wondered if the death of these “special” people actually triggered the periodic Feast of the Dead.
  • In any event, ossuaries are not merely jumbles of bones.  Specific individuals (as bundles, articulated burials, or cremations) can be discerned, and it is clear that their identities were maintained by family members over the years-long burial process.  In this sense, they truly represent a community of the dead.

So it is that a simple catalog compilation developed into a 20-year immersion into the study of prehistoric ossuaries, first in Maryland, then further afield.  I hope my work allows modern Native Americans to better understand the ways of their ancestors, as well as allowing non-Native Americans to appreciate other cultures.  And some 20 or 50 years down the road, I hope this work will help guide future archeologists.

A post script:  When my article appeared in Archaeology of Eastern North America, I told my wife that it had been published.  She asked to see a copy, explaining “I don’t really understand what you do.”  (I know she started reading Feast of the Dead, but I’m fairly sure she never finished it.)  Anyway, that’s a pretty big shortcoming on my part, so I decided to write this blog from a more first-person perspective in order to provide an “inside look” at how one archeologist works. — DCC

Links for further reading:

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One thought on “Prehistoric Ossuaries: A Personal Journey

  1. Dennis, congratulations on your recent publication. The subject matter is common to all cultures; although in greatly modified form, our past families and extended families are in a real sense still with us. Well done!

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