At the bottom of grave B-7, where the autumn's afternoon light was rapidly fading, Doug Owsley looked puzzled as he gently ran the palm of his hand over the young woman's skull.
All day, as he and his crew of experts crouched in the dusty graves of the remote, unmarked cemetery on Maryland's Eastern Shore, something had been bothering the Smithsonian anthropologist.
Volunteer John Imlay and Easton High School biology teacher Nicole Barth examine a skeleton.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
The site, a mysterious mound in the swampy Talbot County tidal flats, seemed to have the earmarks of a lost 17th-century European cemetery: the small boulders used as tombstones, the east-west orientation of the bodies, the old, hexagonal "toe-pincher" coffin styles.
But Owsley had seen signs of the unexpected here. And now, after scrutinizing B-7, whose skeleton was still squeezed into the crumbling wooden sides of her coffin, he quietly announced to the others in the pit that her skull didn't look European. "It looks African," he said.
The discovery came near the end of a three-week dig, which concluded Tuesday, that was designed to educate a group of local high school students and net the Smithsonian the bones of some of Maryland's earliest settlers for scientific study.
Owsley, of the National Museum of Natural History, expected the bones to be those of Europeans right off the boat, the first bold immigrants who gambled their lives and fortunes in the hostile Chesapeake wilderness and became among the earliest Americans. "I think they're going to date somewhere between 1650 and 1680," he said.
He planned to study the bones for nutrition and disease and fill in the portrait of Maryland's first settlers in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the 1607 Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Instead, he stumbled upon an intriguing surprise. "It really threw me," he said later. "I wasn't expecting it at all."
Why were people who looked to be African buried in what appeared to be a 17th-century European cemetery?
There were very few blacks on the Eastern Shore in those days, perhaps only about 300 in 1665, according to one history of slavery in the period. Did these burials then date from a later time?
Others buried in the mound seemed to have European features. Perhaps the cemetery did date from the 1600s, and the earliest days of slavery, when white indentured servants and black slaves were not yet so segregated and might have been buried together in such a lowly spot. Perhaps these early Marylanders were white and black.
"That would fit with what we know about the 17th-century Eastern Shore," University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin said. "Poor people caught in some kind of unfree relationship, whether slavery or various kinds of indentureships, lived together, drank together, slept together, and that they're buried together may not be that surprising."
One day late last month, as the sun set behind a distant tree line and the gnarled remains of toppled cedars lay in a brackish creek that bordered the site, a colleague asked Owsley what the discovery meant.
At the moment, he didn't know.
The cemetery first was investigated about a year and a half ago, when its owner called archaeologist Darrin Lowery and reported that his property contained a Native American burial mound.