Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland

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by Sally M. Walker. Nonfiction. 144 pages. Grades 6-12.
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Review

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This outstanding nonfiction book provides a great way to take advantage of the current popularity of forensics and its hip TV scientists by bringing forensics into the history and science curriculum. The discovery of 17th century graves in and around Jamestown, Virginia is covered by the on-the-scene author who follows the scientists as they work to uncover mysteries about the bodies of a Captain, an African slave girl, an upper class woman and more.

The cover has a creepy, haunting feel suitable for a book about bones and uncovering corpses. The photographs throughout the book of the archaeologists, the grave sites and the human remains are striking and informative.

Students who are eager for forensics on the bodies in the graves will have to read through a discussion of soil conditions and signs in the dirt of the original Jamestown fort and grave outlines before they get to the more tantalizing analysis of a teenage boy's teeth and bones from 1607. At this point the crime lab style details of how the scientists determine the skeleton's age, gender, ethnicity and more take over.

The brilliantly written text explains the fascinating history and science of the discoveries. Walker gives just the right amount of explanation for whatever the current issue is whether it is tooth whitening techniques of the 1600's, the stages of the hardening of seams in the human skull or the decomposition of bodies. This highly accurate text is clearly the result of the writer's immersion in the excavations and in the scientists' testing of the bodies, soils and artifacts.

Specific mysteries -- such as the missing lower legs and feet of a baby's skeleton are presented along with the clues then used to come up with possible explanations. In the process a lot of information about the lives of the colonial era people is covered. Topics such as rickets, class differences, medicine, religious freedom, funeral rites, life expectancy, step-families, warfare, farm work, slavery and of course anatomy are all made vivid.

Source notes, a bibliography, a timeline and recommended websites are included. This is a wonderful unification of science and history.

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  • cover art The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer by Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Selznick, Brian. (2001, Scholastic. ISBN 9780439114943. Order Info.) Picture Book. 48 pages. Gr 2-5.
    This is a picture book biography of the man who first created full scale, fleshed out, models of dinosaurs based on fossils of their bones and on what scientists then knew. He was a great sensation in the late 1800's. First in London and later in New York City's Central Park he created with great passion. This passion, even in the face of calamity, makes for a wonderful read aloud.
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