Restoring Identity to People and Place: Reanalysis of Human Skeletal Remains from a Cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Maryland


Nearly four decades ago, a highway expansion project resulted in the excavation of 35 unmarked graves at Catoctin Furnace, an industrial ironworking village in western Maryland. Initial analysis identified the remains as Africans or African Americans associated with the late 18th- and early 19th-century operation of the ironworks. Renewed efforts to learn more about these poorly documented individuals and connect the site’s untold past to present generations through heritage tourism, prompted reanalysis of the skeletons. Updated assessments of demography and pathology, along with new analyses including heavy metals and carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes, elucidate the life histories of these early laborers and their involvement in furnace operations. Some data derived from recent testing differentiate the Catoctin Furnace individuals from their plantation-based contemporaries in the mid-Atlantic, suggesting regional differences in diet and possible occupational exposure to toxins.


Hace casi cuatro décadas, un proyecto de expansión de carreteras resultó en la excavación de 35 tumbas sin marcar en Catoctin Furnace, una aldea industrial de hierro en el oeste de Maryland. El análisis inicial identificó los restos como africanos o afroamericanos asociados con la operación de la herrería de fines del siglo XVIII y principios del XIX. Los esfuerzos renovados para aprender más sobre estas personas poco documentadas y conectar el pasado inédito del sitio con las generaciones actuales a través del turismo patrimonial impulsaron el nuevo análisis de los esqueletos. Las evaluaciones actualizadas de la demografía y la patología, junto con nuevos análisis, incluidas las pruebas de metales pesados e isótopos estables de carbono y nitrógeno, aclaran las historias de vida de estos primeros trabajadores y su participación en las operaciones del horno. Algunos datos derivados de pruebas recientes diferencian a los individuos de Catoctin Furnace de sus contemporáneos en plantaciones en el Atlántico medio, lo que sugiere diferencias regionales en la dieta y la posible exposición ocupacional a las toxinas.


Il y a presque quarante ans, un projet d'expansion d'autoroute a conduit à l'excavation de 35 tombes sans inscription dans la Fournaise de Catoctin, un village où se pratiquait une industrie du fer dans le Maryland occidental. L'analyse initiale a identifié les restes d'individus africains ou africains-américains associés aux opérations de travail du fer à la fin du 18ème siècle et au début du 19ème siècle. Des efforts renouvelés pour en savoir plus sur ces individus médiocrement documentés et connecter le passé sans récit du site aux générations actuelles par le biais d'un tourisme de mémoire, a déclenché une nouvelle analyse des squelettes. Les évaluations mises à jour de la démographie et de la pathologie, menées conjointement à des analyses nouvelles, notamment les tests de recherche de métaux lourds et d’isotopes stables du carbone et du nitrogène, élucident les récits des vies de ces premiers travailleurs et de leur participation aux opérations d'exploitation de la fournaise. Certaines données obtenues à partir des récents tests différencient les individus de la Fournaise de Catoctin de leurs contemporains ayant vécu dans des plantations de la région mid-Atlantique, suggérant des différences régionales quant au régime alimentaire et une exposition professionnelle potentielle aux toxines.

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  1. 1.

    Delta values are expressed as δR=([Rsample-Rreference]/Rreference)*1000, where R is the ratio of interest (i.e., 13C/12C or 15N/14N) relative to the reference standards of V-PDB and atmospheric air for C and N, respectively.

  2. 2.

    The majority of samples were processed by the Augustana College Stable Isotope Lab. Select samples were tested by Paleo-Isochem, Inc., the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, and the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. Collagen-extraction methods entailed removing surface contaminants, followed by demineralization in 0.3N hydrochloric acid at 4°C, changing the acid daily until reaction ceased. The collagen pseudomorph was rinsed to neutrality, treated with 5% sodium hydroxide for 24 hours at 4°C, and again rinsed to neutrality. Approximately 100 mg of collagen were gelatinized in 5 ml of water (pH 3) for 24 hours at 90°C. Water-soluble and -insoluble phases were separated by filtration, and the former were lyophilized and weighed to obtain a collagen yield. The δ13Ccollagen and δ15Ncollagen values were determined by flash combustion to produce CO2 and N2 and measured against the appropriate reference gas on a VG SIRA 10 dual-inlet mass spectrometer with Carlo Erba EA118 CHN interface. Stable-isotope measurements and weight-percent C and N values were obtained from a single sample combustion. Analytical precision is ±0.1‰ for carbon and ±0.2‰ for nitrogen. Bioapatite analysis involved grinding portions of cleaned bone followed by submersion in 1.5% sodium hypochlorite for 48 hours. The samples were rinsed to neutrality, placed in 1M acetic acid for 24 hours, and again rinsed to neutrality. A minimum of 0.125 g of the bioapatite was loaded into the side arm of a reaction vessel with 4 ml of 100% phosphoric acid loaded into the straight arm of the vessel. Each vessel was evacuated, mixed, and incubated at 25°C for 48 hours. CO2 was collected by cryogenic distillation, and the δ13Capatite was determined by a VG SIRA 10 dual-inlet mass spectrometer.

  3. 3.

    ICP-MS is a highly sensitive analytical tool capable of differentiating a range of elements at concentrations below one part per million. Sample selection minimized skeletal impact, with preference given to identifiable bone fragments or hand and foot elements with adequate amounts of cortical bone. Exterior contaminants were removed with a silicon carbide tool before being rinsed with deionized water and ground to a powder in an agate mortar and pestle. Resulting powder was dried at 100°C overnight before digestion in a combination of 4 mL nitric acid and 1 mL hydrogen peroxide, with identical parameters being used for all bone and quality controls. A 100 mg aliquot of digestate from each sample was weighed into clean 15 cm3 centrifuge tubes before being topped off to 10 g with 2% nitric acid, as described by Little et al. (2004). Diluted solutions were then introduced into a GBC Optimass 9500 inductively coupled plasma time-of-flight mass spectrometer (ICP-TOF-MS).


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The authors thank individuals who supported this study, especially the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society. Kristen Pearlstein assisted in the examination of the human remains. Archaeologists Robert Wanner and Jane Seiter advised on the content of the manuscript. Mike Chapman (Augustana College), Joan Coltrain, (University of Utah) and Jeff Speakman (Center for Applied Isotope Studies) processed bone for the stable-isotope studies. Richard Jantz completed a morphometric study of the crania. Lee-Ann Hayek (Smithsonian Institution) provided a review of the statistical analyses. Funding for the analysis was supported by a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority Non-Capital Grant. Thanks are also extended to the reviewers of this article, who contributed their time and attention.

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Bruwelheide, K.S., Owsley, D.W., Barca, K.G. et al. Restoring Identity to People and Place: Reanalysis of Human Skeletal Remains from a Cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Maryland. Hist Arch (2019) doi:10.1007/s41636-019-00214-7

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  • ironworks
  • African
  • African American
  • isotopes
  • heavy metals
  • craniostenosis