Researchers looking to solve riddle of old bones found in Ridgefield

Nicholas Bellantoni, emeritus state archaeologist, discussed the skeletons linked to the Battle of Ridgefield at press conference last December.

Nicholas Bellantoni, emeritus state archaeologist, discussed the skeletons linked to the Battle of Ridgefield at press conference last December.

Contributed photo / Hearst connecticut Media

Redcoats? Rebels? Farm family? The old bones have yet to tell their story.

Four skeletons were dug up in late 2019 in clay-ish ground not far from where the Battle of Ridgefield was fought. The bones are expected to reveal their secrets through careful research ranging from DNA analysis to studies of buttons found with them to battle histories and family tree documents.

“All four of these individuals will be appropriately reburied — I’m hoping in the Town of Ridgefield, where they belong — with full military honors, with representatives of the American military, and Great Britain as well,” said Nicholas Bellantoni, Connecticut state archaeologist emeritus.

Bellantoni discussed the archaeological findings — the bones, some 37 buttons, and associated history and science — in a talk presented by the Ridgefield Historical Society via Zoom on Tuesday night, Dec. 8.

The talk is now available on the Ridgefield Historical Society’s website.

Bellantoni said he was excited by the prospect that researchers might be able to determine quite specifically who the men were that were buried in shallow graves near the battle site.

“To me, as an anthropological archaeologist, and a forensic archaeologist, to be able to say this is such and such a person, with a name and a family and a background, it doesn’t get better than that.”

Researchers will eventually attempt to solve that riddle as they follow where the information leads, using resources from the Mormon Church’s vast archives on family histories to currently popular DNA tracing websites.

“Yes, we will be matching using the data with some of these ancestry and family trees and see if we can zone in on certain families,” Bellantoni said in response to a question emailed in.

It’s not known yet how much DNA that can be used for research will be retrieved from the bones, but there is reason to be hopeful there will be significant amounts.

“Geneticists have even gotten DNA from fossil remains from Neanderthals,” Bellantoni said. “It doesn’t always work, but we’re very hopeful because of degree of organic preservation.”

Bellantoni oversaw the recovery of the skeletons from their shallow, seemingly hastily dug grave in a Ridgefield basement back in late 2019.

The study of the skeletons remains largely on pause since the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic closed university laboratories — at Yale, UConn and Quinnipiac — where the bones and buttons had been sent.

Bellantoni’s talk began with some history of the find.

“This started as a crime scene investigation,” he said.

Construction workers employed by a homeowner were working in a basement near the old battle site, and uncovered a human skeleton. The matter was taken to the police, and the state medical examiner.

“The bones were determined to be at least 100 years old, or more,” Bellantoni said. “That means it’s not part of a modern criminal investigation.”

It was turned over to the state archeologists office and Bellantoni, though officially retired, was called in. He’d worked previously on investigations using ground penetrating radar to look for whatever might be found from the Battle of Ridgefield.

Skeletons found

The skeleton found in late 2019 was “an adult male, 25 to 45 years of age, estimated height about 5’11’’ — which was a pretty good size back then,” Bellantoni said.

Then the second and third skeletons, and eventually a fourth, were discovered nearby.

“The third burial was uncovered laying right next to the second,” Bellantoni said.

“What we saw right away, the two of them were commingled, they weren’t laid out separately, they were overlapping each other.

“Now we have four burials, three of which were in a common grave, the other was about 15 feet away and clearly not part of this grave,” he said.

The skeletons were all laid out in an east-west orientation, head to the west — a practice in keeping with Christian burial practices of the time.

“Observation made in the field was that all four of these individual were adult men, very robust, very thick boned.”

The 37 brass buttons were found with the bones of two individuals buried together.

“The two burials laying next to each other were where the buttons came from,” Bellantoni said. “We don’t know if they were from waistcoats, or jackets.”

The two other skeletons appeared to have been stripped of their clothing before burial.

Bellantoni said one new bit of information concerned an item found at the site, which is now better understood.

“We thought it was another button, a cuff link, a saddle-shaped type of thing,” he said.

“What that turns out to be is a brass finial, a plug for a powder horn.

“We now know at least one individual wore a powder horn -- the powder horn was removed, the finial probably snapped off.”

Two theories

Bellantoni said there were two theories: Revolutionary war burials or a family burying ground.

“These might just be a farmer family’s burials in what was then the backyard. This was quite common,” he said.

“Many farmers did bury their dead on their properties.”

As for the possibility of battle remains, there had been differing historic reports of casualties.

The British army reported 26 killed and 96 wounded.

Among the patriots, General Gold Selleck Silliman estimated 9 or 10 killed. And General Benedict Arnold — still faithful to the American cause at that point — said there were about 20 killed and wounded.

“Best estimate, 14 American deaths and 24 wounded,” Bellantoni said.

“Are these burials from Battle of Ridigefield?” he asked.

“All of the analysis has not been completed, not by a long shot,” he said.

“At this point we’re just scratching the surface.”

For the hypothesis

There is evidence both for and against the “hypothesis” that the four skeletons were remains of casualties from the Battle of Ridgefield back in April 1777, as opposed to a farmer’s family burial ground.

“Support of the hypothesis is that all four burials are adults and they’re all robust males. There are no women on children,” Bellantoni said.

“A lot of kids died in those days,” he said. “When we see farming families’ burial grounds, we see a high percentage of children. But these are men, robust men.

“Also, no signs of coffins,” he said. “We don’t see coffin nails.

“The burials are shallow, in a common grave. The bodies are commingled, which suggests very hasty burials,” he said.

“These go against any hypothesis of a family burying ground.

“There are no signs of any disease,” he added.

“Two individuals were stripped of their clothing, two wore jackets and shirts — no sign of pants, boots,” Bellantoni said.

“We do know the British stripped their dead on the battlefield.

The buttons found were “tombac buttons” which is in the “right time frame” for the hypothesis.

And, the finial or plug for a powder horn seems to support the battle hypothesis.

“And,” Bellantoni said, “the location is on the battlefield.”

Evidence against

Bellantoni also outlined the evidence that doesn’t support the hypothesis that the remains are from the Battle of Ridgefield.

“No signs of trauma. No musket balls were recovered,” he said.

“If these are victims of the battle they would have died of trauma.”

However, further study of skeletons may show evidence of trauma. Not all soldiers died from bullet wounds.

“We do know they were using sabers and swords,” Bellantoni said. “But the fact is there were no musket balls found…”

There were no military insignia on any of the 37 buttons.

That raises another question of interest, if the remains are from the battle.

“Are they soldiers of Continental Army or are they British? We don’t know,” Bellantoni said.

The finial from a powder horn is suggestive of colonial militia.

“Farmers coming from the fields of Connecticut — ‘Farmers Against the Crown,’ he said, quoting the title of Keith Jones’ book on the battle. “It looks like that.”

Carbon studies of the bones may shed light.

“Carbons in bones reflect diet,” Bellantoni said.

Americans’ diets in the era were “more corn based,” he said, while “Europeans, more rye...

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bellantoni said. “Your support, through the Ridgefield Historical Society, is really critical as to where we go from here.”

The Ridgefield Historical Society has a $50,150 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program for a two-year study of the Battle of Ridgefield and its place in the history of the American Revolution

“The Battlefield Grant obtained by the Ridgefield Historical Society will be critical in the next few years,” Bellantoni said “…making more discoveries of what went on on April 27, 1777.”