George Mason Law School

Archeologist discovers 17th century remains on campus

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September 6, 2010

11:36 PM

Canine bone fragments were uncovered on the College of William and Mary’s campus, in a discovery that could possibly write a new chapter in colonial history.

According to Joe Jones M.A. ’89 of the William and Mary Center for Archeological Research, the discovery of canine bones buried in such a fashion is unprecedented, given the estimated dates of their interment.

“We estimate that the bones were from the late 17th to early 18th century, a period in which the College was still in its infancy,” he said. “This was also a period in which dogs were not treated as household pets, but as beasts of burden, used for hunting and other chores around the household. There wouldn’t have been that type of attachment between a colonist and his dogs for them to be buried this way.”

The bones were unearthed July 13 beneath James Blair Drive, near Tucker Hall, while the street was being excavated as part of the College’s utilities upgrades. The bones rested in two shallow, rectangular pits that at first appeared to be human graves.

“At first, we assumed that the remains were human, given the fashion in which they were buried, so we had to get a permit before we could dig any further,” Jones said.

After obtaining a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to resum the excavation to extract the presumed human remains, Jones and other archaeologists examined the remains under laboratory conditions.

The small sizes and poor conditions of the bone fragments — they were smaller than a fingernail — complicated the examination, since there was great difficulty separating the bone fragments from the soil.

The bones’s fragility made them completely impossible to hold.

Despite the delicate state of the bone fragments and more than three centuries of decomposition, the archaeological team was able to determine that the bone fragments were not the remains of colonial-era human burials.

“Tooth enamel takes the longest time to decompose, and we found some at the bottom of the shallow, two-foot graves,” Jones said. “This allowed us to conclude that the remains were actually those of dogs, not humans.”

Jones speculates that the dogs might have belonged to Native Americans or to African slaves at the College.

“All these possibilities lie before us, but they are all purely speculative since we do not yet have the evidence to confirm any of them,” he said. “During this time period, the College represented the crossroads of three cultures — the colonials, the Native Americans and the African slaves. This find gives us a glimpse into an aspect of colonial life that we didn’t know existed up until now.”

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