Written in Bone by Sally M. Walker

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker (Carolrhoda, 2009) is about what we can learn about a few early American settlers from their bones and burial. It is both a lesson in very early American history as well as a scientific exploration of forensic anthropology. Since I’m studying Jamestown this week with my son and since I’m a big fan of the television show Bones for it’s insight into forensic anthropology, I really enjoyed Written in Bone. Walker approaches her subject with obvious passion, clear language, and well done scientific explanations, all for a young adult audience. She teaches without belittling her audience, a difficult task to do when she’s writing for youth as young as 12 and as old as any adult.

The book is easily accessible, with full color pages providing information for the reader, including black and white historical photos, color photos from the recent archeological digs, charts and diagrams, and maps and illustrations. Her chapters focus on a few different sets of human remains, including a boy from Jamestown, a well-to-do middle-aged man afforded a dramatic burial (including a coffin, which was rare in the starving early years of Jamestown), a teenager’s body found in the basement cellar, a family buried in lead coffins, and a hilltop cemetery. Some of these burials were covered in more chapters than just one, and for many of the people, scientists were able to estimate what the person may have looked like, and we were able to see a visual representation of their faces made from clay by a forensic artist.

To me, the most interesting stories were not those of the rich and well esteemed. Rather, I most enjoyed learning about the unknown poor people, especially those for whom we do not know their names: the indentured servant beaten to death in the cellar, the slaves buried on a hillside, even the boy with rotten teeth who died very soon after arriving in Jamestown. I loved how the scientists were able to determine what chores these people did by looking at their bones, and I especially loved seeing their faces reconstructed by artists.

I have loved every single thing I’ve read that has been authored by Sally M. Walker, so when I heard of a juvenile history book about Jamestown colony, I knew it would be just perfect for me right now. I’m so glad I found it. I’d highly recommend it to the student of American history, the student of history in general, and anyone interested in what science can tell us by reading the evidence from the past. Sally Walker once again has brought history and science alive in Written in Bone.