[The following description of certain human skeletons, supposed to be in armor, found at Fall River, or Troy, in Massachusetts, is from the pen of George Gibbs, Esq. It is drawn with that writer’s usual caution and archaeological acumen.]
Some years since, accounts were published in the Rhode Island newspapers, and extensively copied elsewhere, stating that a skeleton in armor had been discovered near Fall River, on the Rhode Island line. A full description was also published in one of our periodicals (it is believed the American Monthly Magazine), and thence copied into Stone’s Life of Brant1 , in which, from the character of the armor, it was conjectured to be of Carthaginian origin the remains of some ship wrecked adventurer. Other theories have been more recently started, in consequence of the discoveries of the Northern Society of Danish Antiquaries, and their interpretations of the hieroglyphic figures on the rocks at Dighton and elsewhere, which attribute the remains to one of the fellow-voyagers of Thorfin. These speculations, however, seem to have been made without any critical examination of the bones themselves, or the metallic implements found with them. The discovery, during the last summer (1839), of other bodies, also with copper ornaments or arms, led to a more particular inquiry, and my informant, who was then at Newport, proceeded to Fall River for the purpose of inspecting them. The following description was prepared by him from notes taken on the spot, and is to be relied on as strictly accurate. It may serve to correct a false impression in a matter of some historical importance, and for that reason only is deemed worthy of attention.
“The Skeleton found some years ago is now in the Athenaeum at Troy. As many of the ligaments had decayed, it has been put together with wires, and in a sitting posture. The bones of the feet are wanting, but the rest of it is nearly entire. The skull is of ordinary size, the forehead low, beginning to retreat at not more than an inch from the nose, the head conical, and larger behind the ears than in front. Some of the facial bones are decayed, but the lower jaw is entire, and the teeth in good preservation. The arms are covered with flesh and pressed against the breast, with the hands almost touching the collarbone. This position, however, may have been given to it after being dug up. The hands and arms are small, and the body apparently that of a person below the middle size. The flesh on the breast and some of the upper ribs is also remaining: it is of a black color, stringy, and much shrunk. The leg bones correspond in size and length with the arms. A piece of copper plate, rather thicker than sheathing copper, was found with this skeleton, and has been hung round the neck. This, however, does not seem to be its original position, as there were no marks on the breast of the green carbonate with which parts of the copper was covered. This plate was in shape like a carpenter’s saw, but without serrated edges; it was ten inches in length, six or seven inches wide at top, and four at the bottom; the lower part broken, so that it had probably been longer than at present. The edges were smooth, and a hole was pierced in the top by which it appears to have been suspended to the body with a thong. Several arrowheads of copper were also found, about an inch and a half long by an inch broad at the base, and having a round hole in the centre to fasten them to the shaft. They were flat, and of the same thickness with the plate above-mentioned, and quite sharp, the sides concave, the base square and not barbed. Pieces of the shaft were also found.
The most remarkable thing about this skeleton, however, was a belt, composed of parallel copper tubes, about an hundred in number, four inches in length, and of the thickness of a common drawing-pencil.
These tubes were thin, and exterior to others of wood, through each of which a leather thong was passed, and tied at each end to a long one passing round the body.
These thongs were preserved, as well as the wooden tubes; the copper was much decayed, and in some places gone. This belt was fastened under the left arm, by tying the ends of the long strings together, and passed round the breast and back a little below the shoulder blades. Nothing else was found, but a piece of coarse cloth or matting, of the thickness of sailcloth, a few inches square. It is to be observed that the flesh appeared to have been preserved wherever any of the copper touched it.
I could not learn the place where this body was found, or its position.
With respect to the bodies found this summer, I saw the man who dug them up. They were found in ploughing down a hill, in order to open a road, about three or four feet under ground, some two or three hundred yards from the water, and nearly opposite Mount Hope.
There appeared to have been at least three bodies interred here, but they were entirely broken up by the plough; one skull only, which resembled in shape the one above described, being found whole. The flesh on one of the thighbones was entire, and similar in color and substance to that in the first skeleton, and like that. It bore the marks of copper rust. Three or four plates of copper like that first found were discovered, one having a leather thong through the hole in the top. Arrowheads of copper were also found, and parts of the shafts. One arrowhead was fastened on by a piece of cord like a fishing-line well twisted, passing through the hole, and wound round the shaft. There were also some more matting, a bunch of short, red, curled hair, and one of black hair, but neither resembling that of a man, and a curved bar of iron about fourteen inches long, much rusted, not sharpened, but smaller at one end than at the other. It did not appear to have been used as a weapon. These were all the remains discovered.”
Such are the famous Fall River skeletons. But little argument is necessary, to show that they must have been North American Indians. The state of preservation of the flesh and bones proves that they could not have been of very ancient date; the piece of the skull now exhibited being perfectly sound, and with the serrated edge of the suture.
The conical formation of the skull peculiar to the Indian seems also conclusive. The character of the metallic implements found with them, is not such as to warrant any other supposition.
Both Rome and Phoenicia were well acquainted with the elaborate working of iron and brass; these were apparently mere sheet-copper, rudely cut into simple form; neither the belt nor plates were fit for defensive armor. And lastly, the use of copper for arrowheads among the Indians at the arrival of the Puritans, is well authenticated. Mention is made of them by Mourt, in his Journal of Plymouth Plantation, in 1620, printed in the eighth volume of Massachusetts Historical Collections, pages 219-20; in Higgeson’s New England Plantation, first volume of Massachusetts Historical Collections, page 123, and in various other places. They are also found in many of the tumuli of the West. Those of the New England Indians may have been obtained from the people of French Acadie, who traded with them long before the Plymouth settlement.
From these circumstances it appears that the skeletons at Fall River were those of Indians who may possibly have lived during the time of Philip s wars, or a few years earlier, but that they are only those of Indians.
Appx. 19, Vol. 2 ↩