Written in Bone
by Sally M. Walker

Price at time of review: $22.95
144 pp.
Carolrhoda Books, Inc.
Minneapolis, MN
ISBN: 0822571358

Grade Level: 5-8

Reviewed by Ann Rubino
Adjunct, Lewis University College of Education

A scientific “whodunnit” is always guaranteed to generate student interest, especially with the current popularity of detective and crime scene shows. Walker’s excellent book pulls readers into solving the mysteries of deaths long ago—exploring the graves of colonists in Jamestown and Maryland.

The author describes eight excavations in detail, giving the history of the time and scientific background of the area—soil, available materials, and common diseases—and then describes the actual findings in the graves. She worked directly with forensic anthropologists investigating colonial sites, and the findings are sure to intrigue kids and encourage them to learn more about the lives and deaths of those who lived there. Unfailingly respectful of the deceased and the scientific process, the author does not exploit the potential for shock. As each case is worked up, the reader shares in the questions raised and the possible answers.

Without focusing on any crime, the real fascination of forensics is explored. And as the evidence comes in, it forms a picture of the lives, accomplishments, and hardships of the colonists. It becomes increasingly clear that people lived (and died) with a  lot of pain—missing or rotted teeth and badly healed fractures attest to this. Skulls of people from distinct ethnic groups are compared in the course of identifying the likely background of each body. There is potential for great depth here as scientists are shown working through the puzzles they encounter. They examine bones, test and compare soils and their effect on burials, check carbon 14 levels to trace the food plants  in different geographical regions, and more. Carbon dating is discussed in the context of tracing the nutrition, and hence birthplace, of the person. There is so much fascinating detail, leading to understanding of much more than bones—social situations, materials availability, and early written documentation.

This book is a great resource for connecting science with social studies—and so much more. Many sciences are integrated as they are actually used, and the trails of evidence are followed wherever they lead. This could form the backbone of a wonderful forensics unit combining various sciences with colonial history. The information is almost exhaustive—perhaps each team in a class could work up a project on one chapter. It's as close to real-world science as intermediate students are apt to find—a real gem. This book was selected as an NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2010.

Review posted on 6/8/2009

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