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Written In Bone: Forensic Anthropology and Nonfiction Monday

Here is my post for today's Nonfiction Monday round-up hosted by L.L. Owens. Be sure to head on over and check out more posts about nonfiction books for kids!

I’ve often said that children are fascinated by topics that have a high gross factor. And what is more gross than exhuming skeletons that have been buried for over four hundred years so that forensic scientists can learn more about life (and death) in the 1600s and 1700s?

Forensic Anthropology

This branch of science is called forensic anthropology and involves special archeological techniques that keep the digging from ruining the skeletons and preserve the site as much as possible to keep everything intact.

Interestingly, Dr. Douglas Owsley, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institute, teamed up with award-winning children’s writer, Sally M. Walker, so she could create a book called Written In Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland to chronicle just such an archeological/forensic adventure!

Dr. Owsley and his team of scientists excavated several graves at the site of the old James Fort in Jamestown, Virginia in 2005, with the “goal of better understanding the Europeans and Africans who lived in Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay area during the 1600s and 1700s.” (From front flap of Written in Bone)

“Just as forensic scientists use their knowledge of human remains to help solve crimes, they use similar skills to solve the mysteries of the long ago past. From the skeletons, the burial practices, and remnants of objects found nearby, scientists can determine gender and ancestry, along with probable age, what the person ate, what lifestyle he or she lived, and the cause of death. In some cases, further research helps scientists speculate on who the dead were.”

(From front flap of Written in Bone)

Colonial Lives and Deaths

The author, Sally Walker, was able to experience firsthand another dig in Talbot County, Maryland when Dr. Owsley and his crew excavated the unmarked graves of twelve colonial settlers. Therefore her book gives an absolutely fascinating peek at what this type of archeological project involves. Within the pages of Written in Bone, we learn about a teenage boy who probably lived a harsh life and died with an Indian arrow embedded in his thigh. We find about the ceremonial burial of a high ranking ship’s captain who was laid to rest with his leading staff by his side. We also learn about a family buried in lead coffins, another young boy who obviously died a violent death and was buried in a trash pit underneath a house, and an African slave girl.


Forensic anthropology, and even forensics in general, is a very interesting subject to investigate further. Here are a few more suggestions:

You can also learn more about Written in Bone at

My Thoughts on Written in Bone:

I was enthralled with Ms. Walker’s book, and I stayed up late into the night reading the stories of the excavations and the theories surrounding each featured ‘skeleton.’ This non-fiction children’s book is a page-turner, and I learned a great deal about the science of forensic anthropology and the reason behind the study.

I was especially intrigued by the fact that scientists tried to retrieve an air sample from one of the sealed lead coffins so that they could analyze and compare it to modern air to discover how the atmosphere had changed over the centuries!

Written in Bone is an exceptional read, and children (and adults) who are really ‘into’ science will love it! As Ms. Walker said in closing, “…the graves and remains of colonial settlers carry a message to the people of today. They remind us not to forget their lives and accomplishments—and not to lose our connection to the past.”

Originally published at the National Writing for Children Center on 9-14-10.

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