'Haphazard' burial of 400-year-old skeleton from Colonial Maryland points to tragic fate of 'indentured' teenager

Two people excavate a burial site in Maryland.
Katie Davis, an archaeological technician (left) and Jessica Edwards (right) onsite at Historic St. Mary's City. (Image credit: Historic St. Mary's City)

Archaeologists in Maryland have unearthed the skeleton of a teenage boy who may have been an early colonist who voyaged to the New World around 400 years ago.

However, it appears that the boy didn't get a typical burial. When the researchers took a closer look at the skeletal remains of the adolescent, who was of European heritage and likely died between 14 and 16 years of age, they noticed certain physical characteristics that didn't align with regular burial practices, particularly with how the body was positioned, according to the researchers. 

They found his body buried in a meadow located at Historic St. Mary's City, an archaeological site and museum located southeast of Washington, D.C. that once served as Maryland's original colonial capital.

"We were intrigued to find a burial that looked like the individual was placed there haphazardly, with his hips cocked out to one side and his arm stretched across his body in an extreme fashion," Travis Parno, acting executive director of Historic St. Mary's City, told Live Science. "It looked like he was unceremoniously placed or dumped in the grave."

The boy's right leg was broken in two places and his legs were situated in such a way to suggest that he was never tightly wrapped in a burial shroud, which was a typical burial practice at the time.

Related: What happened to the 'vanished' colonists at Roanoke?

It's likely that the teenager's leg broke near the time of death as "it doesn't show any signs of healing," Parno said. "Also, since his knees and ankles weren't found close together, there was likely no shroud."

Researchers think that the skeleton's odd body positioning could be attributed to rigor mortis, which is when a body's muscles and joints stiffen after death. 

"His left hand was clenched in a fist, and his right scapula [shoulder blade] is almost vertical — normally your shoulder blade lies flat when you're on your back — but instead he had this extreme torque of that shoulder," Parno said. "This all suggested that the young man was buried during rigor mortis. When his body finally relaxed, there was no place for [his extremities] to go because they were tightly packed in the soil."

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History curator of biological anthropology Douglas Owsley and biological anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide work at the burial site.  (Image credit: Historic St. Mary's City)

Unfortunately, the burial site offered little to no clues about the boy's actual identity. Researchers think he most likely came to Maryland during the first wave of colonists sometime in the 1630s after the Mayflower's initial landing in 1620.

"When he got here, he didn't survive very long," Parno said. "He likely came over as an indentured servant and may have traveled without his family to work with other colonists. Part of the contract as a servant was to work for a term, which would then entitle you to land. During that time, the colony of Maryland offered new opportunities."

Archaeologists unearthed the burial site two years after they discovered a nearby lost fort, which the colonists had built once they arrived in the region, according to The Washington Post. Other finds from the area include a nearly 400-year-old silver coin featuring England's King Charles I

Parno said that the skeleton will be taken to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for additional forensic study before being reburied in a more secure location on the Historic St. Mary's City site.

"Looking at the grave there is a lot of emotion to it, and you get the sense that someone suffered an unspeakable accident and was buried in a far-off place from his home," Parno said. "Seeing the individual almost face to face has been a profound experience. I'm drawn to want to know more about him, celebrate him and honor him by bringing him some notoriety or attention since he's not the type of person that winds up in history books."

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science Staff Writer

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.