Battle of Ridgefield skeletons get X-rays, CT scans

Scientists huddled around a skeleton, believed to be a Revolutionary War soldier, offering hypotheses for how the man met his demise and lived his life more than two centuries ago.

“I wonder how common it is if a person is shot that there would be a bullet in the bone,” Julia Giblin, an associate professor of anthropology at Quinnipiac University said as she examined the rib cage, looking for traces of metal.

About a month ago, the bones were found under a Ridgefield home — one of three skeletons unearthed by a construction crew there to renovate the basement.

The medical examiner’s office determined the bones were at least 50 years old, and turned them over to the Office of State Archaeology, which in turn brought Quinnipiac on board.

On Friday morning, the brown-stained bones were reassembled on a blue sheet, a hint of the nearly six-foot-tall man who was believed to have fought at the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777.

The other two skeletons, possibly his comrades in arms, would rejoin him by the end of the day as researchers try to find out more about who the men were and how they lived by scanning and X-raying their remains.

The white at the tips of some of the bones, signified newer breaks, and though fragmented, the skeleton is considered well preserved. About 90 percent of the bones are there, with only the fragile face bones and some finger bones missing.

“There aren’t that many skeletons known from this time period, and certainly not from Connecticut,” said Jaime Ullinger, an associate professor of anthropology and co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac. “Hopefully, whether they’re soldiers or farmers, this can tell us about health at this time period.”

If these skeletons are soldiers, it will be the first time Revolutionary War soldiers from the field of battle have been recovered in Connecticut, state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni has said.

One of the biggest clues to the men’s identity and the possibility they were soldiers is that five buttons were discovered, showing at least one of the men was wearing a jacket. While the leading suspicion is that they’re British because they were hastily buried, there is a chance they could have been American, or at least colonists — Tories — who fought with the British.

Photographs of the remains were not permitted out of respect for potential descendants. The intact teeth can be used for a forensic DNA analysis to help find out the men’s identities down the road.

Based on what has been examined so far, the first skeleton is believed to have been a robust man with some gum disease, she said.

The other artifacts, including the buttons, found with the skeletons will offer more clues to their roles.

The bones also will be studied in-depth level over several weeks. Tiny pieces will be dissolved and analyzed for different chemicals, elements and isotopes to determine what the men ate, where they’re from and whether they ever suffered from disease.

“It’s always exciting, but also it’s a chance to tell part of a story,” Ullinger said. “There’s questions you can ask about health and what happens when governments go to war.”

So far, only one skeleton has been examined.

“It looks like whoever it was, it was a strong, well-muscled individual,” said Jerry Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac. “Does that fit it with who would be in the militia? He wasn’t an accountant, unless he was going to the gym.”

Just around the corner from the rest of the skeleton, Tania Grgurich and her radiology students scanned the skull, creating 3-D images that will allow researchers to better examine the bones without being too intrusive. A whirring noise came from the machine and within seconds a gray image of a skull appeared on the screens.

“We’re able to learn a lot more information with the CT than we would with X-Ray,” Grgurich said.

She said it’s always exciting when the imaging and anthropology departments are able to come together on these historical finds.

“This is history,” she said.

Her students also appreciated the chance for some out-of-the-box experience on an interesting subject.

“It’s a great opportunity that we took advantage of,” said Ariana Dipietrantonio, a senior radiology student. “It doesn’t happen often.”

While most of their subjects are living patients, the students have also worked on scanning items for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, pottery and two mummies they work with in class.

The institute also works with Yale University and the P.T. Barnum Museum.

“I came into the program expecting radiology with patients — never a 240-year-old skeleton,” said Erin Lowkes, a senior radiology student.; 203-731-3345