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.
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.
Lowery, executive director of the Chesapeake Watershed Archeological Research Foundation in Easton, Md., knew that no such burial mounds existed in the area, but he agreed to investigate anyway.
Lowery said in recent interviews that when he inspected the mound, which rises between the creek and a marsh, he noted that it was aeolian, made of fine, windblown soil. He also noticed strange rocks scattered across its crest.
They were not part of a building foundation. Nor were they plow stones unearthed from a farm field.
But Lowery had seen them before in very old cemeteries. They were primitive grave markers placed by early colonists who lacked the tools and materials to make a proper tombstone, he said.
And when Lowery and a soil scientist friend bored into the ground later, they came up with strikingly well-preserved human bone.
"Guess what," Lowery said he told the landowner. "You've got a 17th-century cemetery."
Owsley, 53, one of the nation's top forensic anthropologists, was eager to learn more about the region's unheralded first colonists. By studying their bones, he could tell much about what they ate, what ailed them, how they lived and how they died.
He began to assemble a crew of mostly volunteer archaeologists, a pair of experts in the use of earth-penetrating radar and a group of students and teachers from three Eastern Shore high schools. Work started Oct. 11.
With the help of the radar, which can search the ground for evidence of graves, the team determined that about 34 people were buried at the site, most in a formal, orderly manner.
By midmorning Oct. 27, the field excavation was well underway. Several graves were open, and members of the team sat or squatted beside skeletons, using small brushes and strips of bamboo to scrape dirt from the bones of two men and the young woman in B-7.
Nearby, Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide sorted through the remains of a roughly 18-month-old child, one of three children unearthed by the team.
"We have most of the spine," she said. "We have all of the ribs. All of the neck vertebrae are here. The skull is complete. We have the arms, the shoulders, clavicles . . . the upper thorax is all there."
She said it was not clear whether the child was a boy or girl. She saw no evidence of disease.
The ribs of a 6-month-old exhumed before, she said, did have evidence of a vitamin deficiency disease such as rickets, which comes from insufficient exposure to sunlight.
But many diseases don't leave evidence in the bones. "High fevers, things . . . [that] kill you really quickly," don't leave time for the bone to react, she said.
"Kids get sick so quickly," she said. "You get a high fever [and] it can kill you in a matter of a day, two days, three days, and that won't show up on the skeleton."
Still, the bones were extremely well-preserved, probably because the soil was dry and well drained. "The preservation is just amazing for this time period," she said. "Getting a skeleton where you can take out the bone is good," she said. "Usually you just have a stain in the soil that would show you the position of the body."
Aside from bones, coffin nails were the main artifacts the group was finding, until about 3:40 p.m., when volunteer archaeologist John Imlay found another object near the pelvis of the young man in grave B-3.
"It's brass," he called to Owsley.
"Where's it coming out?" Owsley asked.
Right around the skeleton's crotch, Imlay indicated. It looked like some kind of fastener.
Did the individual have pants on? Owsley asked.
Imlay wasn't sure. But moments later, he found a second, similar object, this time with something attached. Owsley examined it. "That's fabric," he said, a terrific find that, under a microscope, might help date the burial.
As the day waned, and a giant moon began to rise on the horizon, attention focused on grave B-7. Its occupant probably was in her late teens or early twenties and had unusually healthy teeth, said Prince George's County archaeologist Dana Kollmann, who was working on the bones.
When Owsley climbed into the pit for a closer look, he said he had been thinking that the skull of the man in grave B-1 also looked African. He could tell by features of the face and jaw. Three tiny hoops later would be found with B-1's skull.
As he pondered B-7, turning the skull in his hands, Owsley looked as if he were waiting for her to speak, waiting for her to explain how and why she had been buried there so long ago.
Owsley eventually would exhume the bones of 12 people from the mound by the creek for study. Three, buried in shallower graves, would turn out to date from the 1850s or 1860s, he said in an interview at the Smithsonian on Thursday. He could tell by their coffin hardware.
The rest, buried together more deeply, are likely to be from the late 1600s or early 1700s, he said. But he is not yet sure.
"In archaeology, when you're digging," he said, "you never know what you're going to find. It's like a mystery. . . . I like the mystery. There's no doubt about it."