Leavy Neck (18AN828) is a late 17th-century site within the settlement of Providence (1649) located on a 120 acre parcel purchased in 1662 by William Neale, a planter presumably of English origin. William Neale, his wife, two children, and several indentured servants lived at the small plantation until Neale’s death in 1677. The site served for many years as a farm, most recently for sod farming, which requires that sod be stripped and the land re-plowed periodically. This process has removed artifacts from the plow zone and damaged buried features.
After conducting ground-penetrating radar and cesium magnetometer surveys of the area in 1999, and surface reconnaissance and a shovel test pit survey in spring 2003, the crew honed in on the area of high artifact concentration. It was in this 150 sq. ft. area that the Lost Towns Project excavated 31 5 ft. x 5 ft. excavation units between June and September 2003. Once the plowzone was removed, a large dark soil stain filled with artifacts, as well as several smaller features, emerged. This circular soil stain was named Feature One in mid-July, and subsequent investigations revealed the feature to be a trash-filled cellar or sub-floor pit. Numerous domestic artifacts dating to circa 1655-1680 were found within this feature, including a 1664 coin minted in the Isle of Wight, a window lead dated 1663, several vessels of North Devon Gravel Tempered ware, and North Devon Sgraffito, lead-back tin glazed plates, tobacco pipe fragments, white metal alloy buttons, and ample oyster and animal bone remains.
Feature One measured 12 ft. square, and was once located under the floorboards of a simple wooden earthfast domestic dwelling. Due to the dramatic loss of upper soil strata, it is unclear if the building was sill laid or of post-in-ground construction, yet artifacts strongly suggest that the building was erected during Neale’s tenure (by ca 1662). The original depth of the cellar when it was occupied is unknown as much of the artifact-filled soil has been removed over time through the sod farming process. Only about 15 inches, on average, of the cellar hole deposit was left.
The excavation of the pit yielded a macabre surprise – a human skeleton crudely interred along one of the walls of the pit. While the Lost Towns Project has excavated more than two dozen similar trash pits, dating from the 1660s through the 18th and 19th centuries, this was the first in which any of the team members had encountered human remains in a trash pit. Excavations proceeded very slowly, methodically, and with great care. Once the majority of the skeleton was exposed, Dr. Doug Owsley, a human osteologist from the Smithsonian and his team came to document the body in situ and advise on its ultimate removal.
The body was interred (as informally as it was) into a functioning cellar hole, one that was actively being used to dispose of common household and domestic trash. The body’s alignment within the pit suggests that a floor, along with the requisite joists and beams, existed overtop the cellar. As the body was laid in one corner, in a contracted position, and extended less than halfway across the cellar, it is possible that the body was interred based upon the restrictions of a summer beam or floor joists supporting the floor above.
Upon use of the cellar as a grave, it appears that the surviving occupants of the home continued to unceremoniously deposit trash, food remains, broken bottles and plates into the trash pit. While the burial had a distinct lens of clay overtop of it, suggesting that the occupants may have used the dense, easily packed clay to cover the corpse and its smell, trash was located in the deposit only inches from the burial itself. In his summary report, Dr. Owsley noted “the location and informality of this burial with nontraditional positioning of the body present a marked contrast to other Colonial burials dating to the last half of the 17th century.” Owsley remarked that the grave excavation was given little attention, noting that the floor is uneven and the grave was much too small for the body. The most revealing component of the burial was the fragment of Milkpan used to press the body into the too-small shaft, and the contemporaneous trash deposited adjacent the burial.
Dr. Owsley came to several conclusions about the skeleton itself. Based on skeletal development, the shape of the skull and pelvis, and dentition, the body is determined to be that of a young male of European descent who was probably around 16 years old when he died. There were also several points on the skeleton which showed signs of heavy labor and hard work, and an isotopic analysis of the bones suggest that the boy was a recent immigrant to the colonies. It is highly probable that the boy was an indentured servant for the family who owned the house and cellar, which became his final resting place.
Was it a burial in the middle of a deep winter freeze requiring that internment happen in thawed soils, underneath the floorboards of the warmth of the house? Or was the family hiding the death of their young servant? Perhaps there was foul play and the burial was done quickly in effort to hide it from authorities.The cause of his demise is not clear, although skeletal evidence of an unhealed wrist fracture suggests a defensive pose against a harsh blow just before his death. That, along with the crude burial, suggests that the indentured servant was murdered.
A Virginia law from 1661 lends insight not only to this burial but to the generally poor conditions many indentured servants in the colonial Chesapeake experienced. The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in 1661 prohibiting the inappropriate burial of servants. This, along with a 1663 document requesting that the Maryland General Assembly take up the issue of inappropriate burials of servants, indicates that this problem was wide spread enough in the colonial Chesapeake to warrant formal attention from the legislature. Laws would have been passed in response to the very action occurring, and in an effort to prevent its recurrence. The historic record—and now the archaeological record—expose that this was simply how indentured servants were treated in the 17th century.
The Leavy Neck skeleton tells an important story not found in the Archives or most history books- the archaeological evidence tells the story of an indentured servant who toiled in the burgeoning settlement of Providence. His ultimate deposition in the cellar simply reinforces the realities of a difficult existence; particularly for indentured servants. His unfortunate demise will add important information to our understanding of life and death in the 17th century Chesapeake. As Hobbes notes in his 1651 “Leviathan”, the life of man in his natural state is solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish and short, a perfect analogy for the life of this indentured servant.
The Leavy Neck skeleton has received a lot of attention from the history world. The skeleton was a subject of the History Channel’s show, History Detectives, in 2004, in an episode entitled “Body in the Basement.” The skeleton was on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in the exhibit “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the Seventeenth Century Chesapeake” from 2009-2014, where his story, along with the stories of other individuals buried in the Chespeake region, was taught to visitors. The exhibit demonstrated the important role forensic anthropology serves in learning about the lives and deaths of people from various times in history as well as in the present day. We are pleased that this young man is now getting the respect and care that he was not afforded in his short life, and that his story has given us a tangible insight into life in early colonial Maryland.
Watch the Smithsonian webcomic about the discovery!