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Anthropology Report: Skeletons Reveal Life Styles of Colonial America

Insight into the lives of black and white colonial Americans has come from an unusual source, the lead in skeletons.

The bones were excavated from burial grounds dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in the states of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. Their lead contents show the social and occupational status of the individuals, according to a team of researchers based at the University of Minnesota, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and at the Research Centre for Archaeology at Yorktown, Virginia.

The bone analyses also suggest that some black slaves of prosperous white owners shared their master’s food and cooking equipment. But white servants of white farmers did not necessarily fare any better than black slaves or free blacks in rural America, says Dr. Arthur Aufderheide.

In today’s industrialized society, lead enters our bodies mostly from motor exhausts, from drinking water that has come into contact with old lead piping, from lead-based paints and from some industrial processes. In the UK and US the bones of an average individual have a lead burden of some 36 micrograms a gram of bone ash, according to one recent calculation.

In colonial America, this figure was often exceeded, Dr. Aufderheide says. This is because there was considerable exposure from lead-glazed ceramic and pewter containers used for storage, preparation and serving of food and beverages. But only the affluent could have afforded these particular household goods.

So the researchers reasoned that if they measured the lead content of bones from skeletons of black and white colonial Americans living away from urban centers, the results might reveal the social relationships among the families of the white owners and their slave and servant households.

They had access to 82 skeletons that archaeologists had excavated from four burial sites. Two of the graveyards represent black populations. One was a slave labor force at a white-owned ironworks furnace near Frederick in Maryland. The other was a black artisan group, probably of free status, at College Landing in Virginia.

The two white colonial populations were from graveyards on plantations near Jamestown in Virginia and Savannah in Georgia.

Old censuses and estate records helped the archaeologists to identify the burials. Further clues to the status of some of the individuals were provided by the method of internment.

Among 16 adult furnace workers, the women had three times more lead in their bones than their menfolk (an average of 40.3 versus 14.1 micrograms per gram of bone ash). Dr. Aufderheide speculates that this may be because the women had access to their white owner’s kitchen and cooking equipment while engaged in domestic duties.

The black artisans from the College Landing burials, which date from 1790 to 1820, had a broad range of lead in their bones (the average among 14 adults was 42 micrograms, but four individuals had well over 50 micrograms of the metal. According to some, these relatively high values suggest that some free blacks enjoyed considerable economic success in the later days of the colonial period.

The burials on the white-owned plantations are more complicated. In general, however, the amounts of lead confirm the social status of the individuals with families sharing similar degrees of lead contamination.

White tenant farmers tended to have more lead in their bones than either free blacks or slaves but to have less than the wealthier plantation owners. Some white individuals had a lead burden of more than 100 micrograms.

An anomaly is a female aged 43 with more than 260 micrograms. This exceptionally high value could be explained, the researchers suggest, if she was a white servant, perhaps the family cook.

But generally, white servants had low amounts of lead, especially those working for white tenant farmers. Could this mean a domestic life sharply segregated from that of their employers?

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