The Indian Neck Ossuary: Chapters in the Archaeology of Cape Cod, V


In September, 1979, National Park Service (NPS) archeologists working at Cod National Seashore were called to the scene of a discovery of a skeleton on Indian Neck near the shore of Wellfleet Harbor in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The archeologists quickly determined that the skeletons probably were prehistoric. In order to salvage the remains before they were destroyed, it was agreed that the archeologists would excavate the remaining in situ materials. Two days of careful fieldwork revealed an unexpected, but intriguing, undisturbed burial feature.

The burial was neither a single burial, nor a cemetery made up of a series of single burials, but a multiple, secondary interment known technically as an ossuary. The burial feature was composed of a thick layer of unburned and disarticulated human skeletal material about 40 centimeters below the ground surface. Beneath this bone layer was another layer of human bone that had been burned intensely as part of a cremation. The burial feature was overlain by a Late Woodland and Contact period midden, which itself was covered by 5-10 cm of topsoil and sand. The few diagnostic stone tools recovered suggest a Late Woodland date for the midden. A fragment of sheet metal recovered in the upper portion of the midden implies that at least a part of the deposit was laid down after European contact, i.e., probably post-1500.

The unusual burial discovered below the midden is one of two well-documented examples of ossuaries in the Northeast outside of northwestern New York State and adjacent Canada and the Potomac-Chesapeake area where this form of burial is more frequent.

The upper and larger component of the ossuary was a densely packed concentration of disarticulated and semi-articulated skeletal remains. The burial feature emerged gradually after the lowest level of the midden had been removed and a sterile layer of mottled soil encountered. As this mottled layer was removed carefully, the top of the burial feature took shape. The ossuary lay at a depth of between 33.5 cm and 70 cm below the surface. The initial appearance of this level was that of a mounded, semi-chaotic pile. The original shape probably was oval with the long axis north-south. However, within the apparently jumbled mass of bone, there was evidence of internal organization. Crania tended to be concentrated along the eastern and western margins of the feature while the post-cranial bones were placed in between.

A cremation was located beneath the central portion of the unburned layer. This part of the burial feature was a compact mass of densely packed, calcined human bone. It measured 54 by 76 cm horizontally and was between 10 and 20 cm thick.

Radiocarbon dates for the ossuary overlap in the range of years A.D. 935-1020, confirming the Late Woodland temporal provenience for the ossuary.

A minimum of 47 individuals was present in the unburned bone level and nine individuals in the cremation. Minimum number counts were established by sorting all the bone according to type and determining the frequency of the most commonly occurring elements. Thirty-one adults, defined as those individuals greater than 18 years of age, were identified. The most commonly occurring element for the subadults was the femur, representing at least 22 individuals in the unburned level and at least three in the cremation. Both the cremation and the unburned levels contained individuals of each sex and with widely different ages, suggesting that the burial population accurately reflects all ages and both sexes of the living population from which it derived.

There appeared to be no over- or under representation in the burial population. Examination of the bones also revealed that the population represented had been a remarkably healthy one. There was little evidence of disease-related pathology and no unusual incidence of trauma. Contrary to initial popular speculations that mass burial might have resulted from an epidemic or other catastrophic occurrence, the burial feature represents the mortuary practices of a particular group in which all or most of those who died within a period of time were buried together ceremonially.

Cite this Record

The Indian Neck Ossuary: Chapters in the Archaeology of Cape Cod, V. Francis McManamon, James Bradley, Ann Magennis. Chapters in the Archeology of Cape Cod ,V. National Park Service, North Atlantic Region, Boston, MA: national park service. 1986 ( tDAR id: 3455) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8N014H6

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 935 to 1020

Spatial Coverage

min long: -70.034; min lat: 41.911 ; max long: -70.007; max lat: 41.933 ;

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