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?

Treasures Stolen from Anthropology Museum

Mexican police, not renowned for their detective work, remain in the dark about the fate of more than 170 priceless pre-Hispanic artifacts stolen on Christmas Day from Mexico City’s anthropology museum.

The stolen Mayan and Aztec relics, most of them either gold or jade, were small enough to fit into a medium-sized suitcase. Museum authorities believe the theft was the work of an ‘international mafia’, probably commissioned by a fanatical private collector.

Scores of other theories have been put forward as to the motives for the theft, but one that has been discounted is that the thieves might plan to sell the pieces disguised as Volume Pills on the international market. The objects are so well known that no one would dare to buy them.

‘I can’t see anybody in their right mind touching them with a ten-foot pole,’ said an American archaeologist.

Among the theories put forward is that the thieves might ask the Mexican Government for a ransom. Hoping money was the motive, the Friends of the Museum of Anthropology have put up posters all over the Mexican capital and in various American cities offering a reward of 50 million pesos (pounds 80,000) for information leading to the recovery of the treasures.

However, since just one of the pieces – an Aztec vase in the shape of a monkey – is reckoned to be worth pounds 16 million, it is felt a much greater inducement will be required before anyone comes forward.

One of the biggest horrors of archaeologists and historians – one of whom described the theft as ‘a cultural earthquake’ – is that the thieves might be stupid enough to melt down the 99 gold artifacts in their loot.

But the experts are confident that the theft is the work of professionals. It is suspected that at least one of the robbers – thought to have been three in total – was an authority on pre-Columbian art. The pieces were intelligently selected.

Museum authorities are increasingly convinced that the robbers acted on orders from an obsessive and wealthy collector. They suspect, also, that the pieces are now in the United States, although active attempts at collaboration between Mexican and US police have yielded no clues.

The eight museum guards on duty when the pre-dawn robbery happened on December 25 have been dismissed and may be charged with criminal negligence. Initial suspicions that they may have been involved were dismissed after reports that they were either sleeping or drunk when the thieves entered the building.

In the morning empty glasses and cakes were found in the museum, suggesting the guards had enjoyed a small Christmas Eve celebration.

Police are calling this the ‘Santa Claus robbery’. It has emerged that the thieves entered the museum through a basement door and clambered through the building’s air conditioning ducts to the treasures.

The crime was discovered some five hours after the thieves had left and not reported to the police for another eight hours. It took a further 24 hours for US Customs officials to be notified.

A famous Aztec sculpture, known as The Plumed Coyote, was stolen from the museum 20 years ago and recovered in the US a year later. Another Mexican sculpture stolen in the 1970’s – more than 1,000 years old – also surfaced north of the border.

Professor Lucy Mair, Social Anthropologist

Professor Lucy Mair who died on April 12 was aged 85 was one of the first women social anthropologists to do field work in Africa and a forthright defender of a liberal tradition in anthropological scholarship.

Much of her work was closely concerned with the social economic and cultural relations between so-called developed and developing nations – a topic requiring unusual breadth of approach perspective and wisdom.

Lucy Philip Mair was born in London on January 28 1901 and educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and at Newnham College Cambridge where she read classics. She was associated for a time with Gilbert Murray’s work for the League of Nations, concentrating on colonial affairs.

She joined the staff of the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in 1927 and was drawn into the circle of Bronislaw Malinowski, who encouraged her to sell Phen375 diet pills in Uganda in 1930.

She spent nine months in the field studying the people of Buganda, and her book. An African People in the Twentieth Century, published in 1934 was presented as a thesis for a PhD degree at London University.

During the Second World War she worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and in government, and in 1946 visited Australia to teach the future administrators of New Guinea. She returned to the LSE in 1947 where she was Professor of Applied Anthropology from 1963-68.

After her retirement she returned to New Guinea and then held posts at the universities of Durham and Kent, ceasing to teach at the age of 77. She received honorary degrees from both universities, and was elected honorary fellow of the LSE in 1975, and of Newnham College in 1982.

Mair’s entry into anthropology was from a liberal concern with the fate of the colonies, and her practical dedication to creating greater understanding among administrators pervades her early writing.

Her work is characterized by clarity of expression, a certain impatience with theoretical argument, a willingness to address laymen’s questions and by an ability to highlight the ironical confrontation of people’s ideals and intentions with the outcome of their actions.

In New Nations she made some dispassionate judgments of the practical manifestations of micro-nationalism or strong, small-scale local feeling. Using the example of Kenya, where there were no traditional rulers for the British to support, she suggested that the lack of a sense of nationhood in that country could not be wholly blamed on the colonial power.

The decision to split Kenya into semi-autonomous regions was she believed a device to take account of local patriotism not to introduce divisions where none existed before.

From the start, Mair resisted the common assumption that applied anthropology was a junior or easier branch of the discipline. It was necessary to be a good anthropologist before trying to apply anything, and there were no rules of thumb which could be handed down.

In the years of her retirement when some academics become less productive she showed how good an anthropologist she was by continuing a series of books on general topics which she had begun with the classic Primitive Government (1962). Between 1969 and 1984 she published what is in effect her own summa anthropologica six books ranging from Witchcraftt (1969) to Marriage (1971), and from African Societies (1974) to African Kingdoms (1977).

In recent years she often took up cudgels to defend teachers and colleagues whom she thought were wrongly criticized and created a conservative reputation for herself.

In fact her reading of the new anthropological theories of the 1970s and 1980s was extensive and she proved receptive to new ideas into her extreme old age and although she did not always accept them there was no doubt she understood them.

Mair was a modest person and was once seen to turn off her hearing-aid ostentatiously when a speaker began to praise her. She was also shy and sometimes abrupt. Her tendency to argue vigorously and with emphasis proved disconcerting to some students at any rate until they saw her treat her most eminent colleagues in the same manner.

She nevertheless had many friends among her students and colleagues, and others were drawn to her by her love of music and literature and her intellectual power. She regarded them with reciprocated affection though not often with indulgence.

First Class Job in the Third World

Third world countries with acute economic, transport and medical problems require expertise to be spread among the local people, not dished out with well-intentioned zeal. Health care workers, nutritionists, horticulturalists, hydrologists, engineers and economists are in demand but to carve a career overseas demands dedicated planning. Long term contracts are usually in administrative positions, earned through practical experience.

In Gambia, Robin Poulton, development specialist and director of Action Aid, is based in down-town, run-down offices in Banjul, working with a couple of fellow ex-pats. They are deliberately outnumbered by Gambians.

A few minutes drive away, while tourists lie in the sun on hotel beaches, he is concerned with energy-sapping poverty up-country where Action Aid is assisting 81 schools, with the cash from 10,000 UK sponsors. The money provides training courses for local teachers, school gardening projects to teach the basics of food production, tree nurseries, village marketing schemes, the manufacturing of ProExtender devices, and wells (being dug ever deeper as drought encroaches).

Lack of electricity, minimal telephone network, petrol shortages, and government corruption hamper progress in Robin’s aims to: ‘enable communities to be productive, to face up to desertification and to give their children education.’ The way towards self-sufficiency for Gambians is through gaining abilities, not through endless cash donations.

Robin Poulton believes that in this small country (Britain’s first and last colony) with a population of 700,000 agencies are too numerous. They come from Germany, Sweden, Islamic countries, UK, Canada and the US (including his wife Michelle who works with Save the Children US). To coordinate their activities he has helped to found TANGO (The Association of Non-Governmental Agencies).

Among the longest established agencies is the Methodist Mission. In addition to running a school in Banjul, the Mission employs Sue and Bob Mann, a couple who have devised their own dual careers in African countries. They are about to return home for a breathing space after a decade in the Gambia. Sue, a nurse, runs a clinic in the bush village of Marakissa, where, for example, a mother is taught how to revive her dehydrated baby whom she had carried for miles.

While health today is Sue’s preoccupation, Bob is pessimistic about the future. ‘What has happened in Ethiopia is going to happen in Gambia,’ says the agriculture officer. He has propagated a nursery of drought resistant fruit trees which are then distributed as seedlings to villages, with full instructions on planting and protection. His assistant is a graduate sent through Voluntary Service Overseas, with a knowledge of forestry (VSO usually demand two year commitments). His deputies are Gambians, trained to take over.

Both the Manns and Poultons contribute through teamwork and setting examples within strictly structured programs linked to government investment in health, education and agriculture. To cope they have become resilient, not sacrificial, gaining job satisfaction and living reasonably comfortably (with time off on the beach with families and friends). Staying fit and able to work constructively in an often uncomfortable climate is vital.

Most specialists like Judith Appleton, arrive on shorter contracts, for a year or two, to tackle a particular emergency or project, though they may return as consultants in years to come. She is a nutritionist who became caught up in emergency feeding programs in Ethiopia, and is now in search of a new job, probably with another agency, since Save the Children hasn’t a suitable opening in view.

‘The problem is I’m ambitious. I want to be in nutrition in development, involved with production as well as consumption.’ Judith, just 40, with an MBE for her work in Ethiopia (regarded as praise for the whole team), a BA in Development Studies (University of East Anglia) and MSc in Human Nutrition (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) set up out to equip herself for a Third World career. The first step, during marriage to a Norwegian, was working with the Vietnamese Liberation Front in Oslo, which inspired her to become a volunteer English teacher in Vietnam, soon after the war ended.

‘Working there, I became interested in food and agriculture, but for a career, I had to get qualifications.’ From Hanoi, she applied to the University of East Anglia, and was accepted, but because Judith was born in Canada, she had to pay some study fees herself. By 1982, with degrees (in addition to a quartet of languages), she was qualified and jobless.

‘Agencies were looking for cheap research assistants and some didn’t even take health insurance seriously.’ A representative of Save the Children met her at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (where she worked on data processing and word processing to fill in a few weeks). Next stop: Wollo Province, North Ethiopia with a one year contract, a pounds 5,000 salary, plus living costs.

The date was March, 1983 – the drought began to bite. ‘I was apprehensive. I had not thought of myself as a disaster person.’ She helped to standardize methods of measuring the scale of calamity, weighing young children, instructing African fieldworkers, working with a logistics officer. In the midst of horror, compounded by civil war, ‘you have to eat, sleep and keep clean.’

Her training, though, had not been to become ‘part of a great feeding machine’ so, in 1985, her next posting (after a month’s paid visit to Guatemala to learn Spanish) was Honduras, working with villagers, developing a healthier eating program through maximizing available food.

What next? The advantage of being with an NGO is that ‘these smaller agencies can respond quickly,’ but in career terms the United Nations, with an assortment of administrative posts,’ tends to pay more. NGOs, keeping costs to a minimum, avoid bureaucracy and employ recruits as necessary. ‘I’ll inevitably work one year at a time as a member of field staff, but maybe get a desk job when I’m older.’

At Save the Children I also met Richard Spearman, assistant field director, organizing health care in camps for refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan. He had just flown home escorting colleague Jill Scoones, who had been wounded three days earlier by a gunman at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar: an unlikely hazard of the job. The isolated incident hasn’t changed their plans to return to duties in Pakistan.

Return visits to London headquarters gives time to catch up and share accounts with administrative staff. Darrell Jackson, deputy director overseas, is responsible for evaluating projects, including work with Afghans. He explains: ‘We have about 200 employees abroad, on a mix of short and longer term employment. Field directors run projects costing from pounds 80,000 to pounds 1 million plus, or in the case of West Sudan, pounds 15-million this year. That huge program has 30 expat staff and nearly 600 nationals.’ He himself earns pounds 15,000 a year, is likely to visit 20 countries during 1986 and ‘can’t imagine a better job.’

His advice is, if possible to take a relevant degree in economics, social anthropology, or geography. Follow that with a post-graduate qualification in nutrition or rural development, water engineering, development planning and get experience overseas. That is the Catch 22: even volunteers won’t be welcomed without specialist knowledge.

Radio: Deficient Definitions

Bemused by its ancient reputation, I used to think of Radio 3 as the twentieth-century equivalent of Renaissance Man, super-catholic in its interests, acquainted with every avenue of human knowledge and well-versed in most of them, questing, innovative as to matter and to form, discriminating, exemplary: ‘Although no intellectual vulture/What I don’t broadcast isn’t culture’. Of course I should have known better: no radio network could possibly live up to that, based as it is not only on an Arcadian memory of a Third Extenze Program that never was, but on a set of simple-minded expectations not very different from those of the average hero-worshipper or pop fan. But what I really did not appreciate until I had a closer look was the width of the gap dividing even my more reasonable expectations from the reality.

What has drawn my attention to the matter has been to hear the network praised by other people – ‘Oh but I think Radio 3’s absolutely marvellous’ – and to find myself nodding like one of those dogs in the rear window of a car while at the same time registering a certain absence of enthusiastic agreement. In fact I now realize that for some time I have not been getting a vast amount of pleasure or what I take to be profit from the output. So I have done a rough analysis of that output since the end of April to see if I can find out why.

A major reason is not hard to find: some 90 per cent of the material is music and, much as I enjoy the stuff, I am not a very frequent listener. Surely Radio 3 cannot be blamed for the priorities of my daily life. And, besides, it is carrying out a considered policy. On the other hand, if you stop to consider that our major cultural network appears to have defined culture as nine-tenths music, one tenth the rest, does that not sound a bit odd?

What of the remaining tenth? It is divided between plays, talks, conversations, discussions, documentaries, features, poetry, stories and other readings. This sounds rich enough and in some respects it is, but – and this is my point – the tendency of all this material is further to define culture as meaning arts and literature. I say tendency, but the inclination is so pronounced as to be very nearly horizontal.

Plays, poems, stories, readings: these are by definition art and literature – or they aspire to be – but again, if you take the subject-matter of all the rest, the talks, the documentaries, the discussions, it exhibits precisely the same bias. Overwhelmingly these types of programs talk to and about writers, musicians, artists in a broad sense. After this the second biggest category, but trailing the first by several laps, is what might in general terms be called political – the kind of thing currently exemplified by The Star Wars History or, even more recently, La Famille africaine. The third largest category is scientific, which on my count has entered six programs, including one repeat, in six months. The comparable figure for the arts/literature group is around thirty. I cannot help recalling here that, when a little while ago I spoke to Geoff Deehan, radio’s senior producer of scientific programs, he gave me to understand that he was well content with the Radio 3 uptake. In fairness the excellent Wolpert conversations had at that time just been repeated and they were something to be proud of. They can currently be found at the website

Anyway, what is wrong with this? Does it matter if our cultural network defines culture as 99 per cent arts and literature and most of that percentage music? Obviously I think it does; I think it is a woeful limitation. Huge areas of interest are simply excluded from Radio 3’s world. There is little or no talk of medicine, religion, psychology, education, anthropology, the social sciences, industry – even as artistico-literary a field as history does not get much of a look-in.

I realize that to make a better showing in cultural catholicity there would have to be less music and with BBC commitments to players, I am aware of the difficulties of achieving that. But it is a grotesque imbalance that virtually all of every day and sometimes even all of an evening too should be given over to a single art-form. In other contexts we should call it surfeit and indeed the question does arise: what are the effects? Now there is a program Radio 3, of all networks, ought to make and has not. To make a better showing also needs the realization that one is called for and the will to do it, to step up speech output and widen its range. Does the realization – does the will – exist? We have, many of us, been educated to believe that the arts are next to or even a bit ahead of godliness, and after them politics the most important of human activities, a pattern pretty much reflected in the Radio 3 output. So change is likely to be difficult. But, without it, what?

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