The Archaeological Evidence for Dissection or Autopsy at the Williamsburg Coffeehouse
Fragmentary human remains in Williamsburg were recovered from a massive refuse midden associated with Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse, which stood on Duke of Gloucester Street adjacent to the Capitol Square. Popular in London and the American colonies since the late seventeenth century, coffeehouses were typically elite spaces and venues for a variety of cross-class commerce, debate, and socializing. They were also sites for lectures and public announcements, and dissemination of news, in addition to eating and drinking. Williamsburg was host to several coffeehouses in the early eighteenth century, but never more than one at a time. Charlton’s coffeehouse opened for business around 1755 and operated until 1767, when Charlton applied for a license to be considered a tavern, and the building held that function until 1771 (Kostro et al. 2008).
As gathering places, and as clearinghouses for news and information, historians of early modern Britain have emphasized London’s coffeehouses as centers of what Jurgen Habermas (1991) described as the “public sphere”—a unique social space in which distinctions of rank and status were temporarily suspended to allow uninhibited debate on public issues and moral virtues (e.g. Cowan 2008). In the American colonies, coffeehouses were likewise centers of philosophical discussion, gossip, political debate, and business engagement. Public performances and events also took place in colonial public houses—a notice from the Virginia Gazette in 1767 remarks on the delivery at Raleigh Tavern of “the celebrated LECTURE upon HEADS,” a dramatic performance of a man speaking to papier-mache heads that was wildly popular in colonial America (Garrett 1979; Purdie and Dixon 1767, 3).
From 1996 through 2009 the site of Charlton’s coffeehouse was the focus of an extensive series of archaeological, architectural and historical investigations. The archaeological excavations revealed extensive evidence regarding the building’s appearance and the nature of the surrounding landscape (Kiser and Mouer 1996; Kostro et al. 2008; Garden et al. 2001). Evidence of the building’s layout reinforced its dual use as a convivial public house and an exclusive domain. The first floor included a public room intended for those interested in the consumption of hot and cold beverages, meals and general chatter, and a private room with fine furnishings that could be rented for exclusive events. These separated and defined spaces created a heightened sense of class differentiation in the coffeehouse, which itself was only open to white men, primarily landowning elites. Below the first floor, the building had a full-height cellar used as a cookroom that further distanced workers, probably enslaved Africans, from the refined spaces above (Chappell 2008). Above the public room, the upper floor “was clearly backstage space, conceivably used for all the mundane and illicit functions that taverns and coffeehouses commonly sheltered” (Chappell 2016).
The archaeological excavations recovered approximately 400,000 artifacts, and the rich midden north of the building was the source of substantial coffeehouse- related material (approximately 70,000 artifacts). The artifacts clearly provide details regarding what objects were being used in the coffeehouse and what sorts of food and beverages were being served and consumed. Artifacts relating to food prepara?tion and service indicate that patrons were offered the latest table fashions, but less fashionable and less expensive vessels were also used to create the setting. The midden artifacts include items associated with the preparation and service of tea, coffee and chocolate in addition to alcoholic offerings such as beer, wine and punch (Ladd- Kostro and Kostro 2010). Meanwhile, analysis of the faunal remains suggests that patrons ate dishes that reflected an elite status; many animals were roasted and served whole, and a variety of prized wild species were offered (Bowen 2001).
Mixed with the discarded pottery, glass and animal bones, excavators also recovered several human vertebrae from the coffeehouse midden contexts. Three partial thoracic vertebrae exhibited modifications in the form of parallel cutmarks to the right dorsal transverse processes, revealed by examination with a hand lens. Three unmodified fragments, one from a thoracic vertebra and two from cervical vertebrae, were also recovered. In addition, there was also an intermediate hand phalanx that appears to have been modified for use as an articulated skeleton (Kiser and Mouer 1996). This object likely also played a role in the performance of medical expertise in Williamsburg, and historical and archaeological evidence for articulated skeletons in the town is reviewed in another study (Chapman 2016).
Because of the elements present in the Coffeehouse midden, most demographic information was unobtainable for these remains. However, the vertebral fragments exhibited non-fusion of the annular rings to the vertebral body, suggesting that the individual was between 14 and 18 years of age when they died, (Scheuer 2000, 211-213). No information regarding sex or ancestral affiliation could be determined based on the elements present.
A major question raised by these remains is whether they are more likely to be associated with a dissection of a complete cadaver, or whether they might be associated with an autopsy procedure to discern cause of death. The first fragment (18433- 17KD171) consists of the right transverse process and lamina of a thoracic vertebra, probably T8 given the shape and angle of the inferior and superior articular facets. There are modifications to this bone fragment comprised of five fine cutmarks, likely from a scalpel or knife that extends supero-inferiorly along the right transverse process. Cutmarks appear to have a V-shaped cross section, are relatively shallow, and measure 2.5-8.9 mm long. One cut, however, was visibly thicker than the others and seems to have been responsible for a postmortem break in the bone midway along the right transverse process. The next element (19442-17KD202) is also a lower thoracic vertebra, probably T9, complete except that the spinous process has broken off adjacent to the lamina (Fig. 4.2). This element is modified by nine fine marks of similar orientation and length to that of 18433-17KD171. The longest cut, however, extended far enough into the trabecular bone of the right transverse process that it caused the process to break off. The last modified element (19036-17KD187) likely represents T10, and is in a similar state of completeness to the others. It is modified by five fine cutmarks, which again extend supero-inferiorly along the right transverse process and are of similar length and character to the other two elements. These modifications all appear to have occurred to the bones as they were oriented in anatomical position, through supero-inferior cuts using a fine knife or scalpel. The remaining three unmodified vertebral fragments represent small
Fig. 4.2 Elements 19442-17KD202 and 18433-17KD171 from the midden of Charlton’s Coffeehouse (courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
portions of an unidentified thoracic vertebra and two cervical fragments, one of them likely C7. None of the vertebrae exhibited any signs of traumatic injury aside from the cutmarks, and no other pathologies were observed.
On balance, the remains appear more characteristic of a dissection rather an autopsy event. The modifications are consistent with novice attempts to cut through the muscles and ligaments of the dorsal spine. Indeed, Hopper’s The London Dissector from 1809 describes the challenges of dissecting the muscles of this area, explaining that the muscles of this region are packed closely together and often share fibers, making successful and neat differentiation difficult (Hopper 1809, 230-234). Unlike the Jamestown remains, there is no pathology observable on the small number of bone fragments recovered that might indicate a medical intervention or reason for autopsy. Furthermore, the physiology of this area makes it unlikely that these fragments of bone represent an attempt to perform a medical procedure on a living patient, or to practice such a procedure on a cadaver. While the Medical College of Georgia remains included examples of vertebrae that have undergone a laminectomy, a procedure to reduce swelling of the spinal cord, this procedure was first performed in 1887 and employed instruments much more substantial than these modifications suggest (Boos and Aebi 2008, 457; Uff et al. 2011). Dissection rather than autopsy is also supported by Boston and Webb’s (2012: 74-76) suggestion that multiple nearby cut marks suggests multiple students practicing on the same cadaver; by contrast, autopsies were performed by more experienced physicians, who would not have been repeating procedures.
The single aspect of these remains less consistent with a dissection is that we have only a small number of elements represented in the sample. Unfortunately, during nineteenth century occupation at the site a cistern was excavated into the lot, which disturbed an unknown proportion of the midden deposit from which these human remains, and the modified phalanx, were recovered. However, it is unclear what proportion of a dissected individual we should expect to see after a Williamsburg dissection. Given the rare nature of dissections during the mid-eighteenth century, and the challenges to obtaining legal human remains for study and analysis, it is possible that many of the remains were retained by the person performing the dissection or individuals assembled to watch it. Preparation manuals available around the time demonstrate that wax injection molding of vessels and organs, maceration, preservation in spirits, drying, and plaster casts were all employed in order to save human tissues for further research and study (Kooijmans 2011; Pole 1790). Regardless, these remains appear to represent an unusual event in the Coffeehouse history. Contrary to other eighteenth and nineteenth-century contexts of private or university medical schools such as the Medical College of Georgia or London’s Craven Street Anatomy School, there is not currently any evidence of repeated lime deposits or accretional assemblages of human remains (Kausmally 2012; Blakely et al. 1997). The remainder of this chapter places these remains into broader historical context, particularly relating to the practice of colonial medicine, public and private spaces for conducting autopsy, and the significance of the coffeehouse.