Dem bones
November 8, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

How long could a skeleton survive buried in the Northeast United States?

I'm writing a piece of fiction, set in the present day, that ideally will involve the discovery and study of the skeletal remains of several bodies buried in shallow graves (with no coffins and no embalming) in New England in the late 17th century. I know that much older skeletons have been found in drier parts of the world, but could human bones last that long in rainy, acidic New England? I'm looking for regionally-specific answers only.
posted by oinopaponton to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hurricane Sandy upended a tree in New Haven, Connecticut. Entwined with the tree's roots was the skeleton of someone who was likely buried in the late 1700s.
posted by ErikaB at 7:39 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is going to be very dependant on local conditions, but I'm pretty sure 200-300 years is a trivial amount of time for skeletal remains to survive.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:40 PM on November 8, 2012

Memail ColdChef, he'll be able to give you great suggestions.
posted by easily confused at 3:35 AM on November 9, 2012

Best answer: I've done excavations on mid-17th century sites in Connecticut (post-contact Native sites, tribe disputed, but we can tell they were post-contact by the mix of burial styles). The bones were in really, really terrible shape, the texture almost like half-dead root matter rather than what you expect from bones. This was a coastal site with a lot of disturbance.

The recent New Haven find is inland and a bit more protected (in that there weren't buildings going up and down on the Green, although they did remove the markers to Grove Street at one point.)

On quick Google, I found this old bulletin that describes osteological remains in CT (the first two reports). The first one was described as in much better condition than the second set. The soil can be very acidic around here but the condition of remains can be extremely variable based on almost innumerable conditions - acid, bioturbation, human work on the land, presence or absence of water, how much frost the area has, etc....

(There is an index to other CT reports here, although it's kind of a pain to navigate.)
posted by cobaltnine at 6:39 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, cobaltnine, that's along the lines of what I was looking for. My skeletons would be inland, in a wooded and undeveloped area, so it sounds like it is maybe within the realm of possibility (if not probability) that they could have survived in decent enough condition for an anthropologist to determine sex and age.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:16 AM on November 9, 2012

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