The Skeleton in Armor
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Skeleton in Armor

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History of Bristol County, 1883

  Speak I speak I thou fearful guest!

Who, with thy hollow breast

Still in rude armor drest,

Comest to daunt me!

Wrapt not in Eastern balms,

But with thy flesh less palms

stretched as if seeking alms,

Why dost thou haunt me?" 

     When Longfellow wrote " The Skeleton in Armor," he commemorated forever the curious and mysterious remains that were found in Fall River in the year 1832, and destroyed in the great fire of 1843. Few persons of general reading are entirely unacquainted with the conjectures of antiquarian and archaeological societies in relation to the origin of this skeleton. The Society of Northern Antiquaries of Copenhagen, Denmark, which, a few years after the finding of the skeleton, had the subject under consideration, raised the query whether it might not have been the remains of one of the Northmen, who are now very generally supposed to have visited our coast, and to have spent a winter here, or near here, about the eight or ninth century. Probably the best account now extant of the finding of the skeleton, and a description of its appearance at the time, was written by the date Dr. Phineas W. Leland in the records of the old Fall River Athenaeum soon after the fire of 1843, and is as follows:

 " Among the curiosities of peculiar interest (in the cabinets of the Fall River Athenaeum) was the entire skeleton of a man, about which antiquarians in the odd as well as the new world had speculated much. The skeleton was found in the year 1832 in a sand- or grave]-bank a little east of the Unitarian meetinghouse by some persons while digging away and removing a portion of the bank. (On or very near the site now occupied by the "Gas-Works, corner of Hartwell and Fifth Streets).The skeleton was found near the surface in a sitting posture,the legbones doubled upon the thigh-bones, and the thighs brought up nearly parallel with the body. It was quite perfect, and stood remarkably well the test of exposure. Covering the sternum w as a triangular plate of brass somewhat corroded by time, and around the body was a broad belt made of small brass tubes four or five inches in length about the size of a pipestem placed parallel and close to each other. Arrowheads made of copper or brass were also found in the grave with the skeleton. That these were the remains of an Indian seemed to be very generally conceded; the configuration of the skull, the position in which the skeleton was found, and the additional fact that parts of other skeletons were found near the same place renders it nearly certain that these were the bones of an Indian. Whose frame it was will not likely ever be permitted us to know. Whether it belonged to some chief still celebrated in song and story, or to an obscure child of the forest, whose bones and deeds slept in the same undistinguished grave, we have no means of knowing. Tradition and history are alike silent when interrogated. We would fain believe that these were the remains of some noble old chief, once master of the beautiful and rich valley through which the dark waters of the Titicut (Indian name of Taunton River) still rot. We would believe so, for we dove to think that humanity once warmed the heart of him whose bones have excited so much our wonder and curiosity. Whoever he was, peace be to his ashes."

    In the American Monthly Magazine for January, 1836, is a short article on the skeleton, then in the Fall River Athenaeum, portions of which we shall extract, not because the description is faultless, but because it is the account of one J. Stark who examined the remains for the purpose of describing them to the public. With Mr. Stark's speculations accompanying his description we have little concern. More facts and greater reflection would probably have led him to very different conclusions. He describes the skeleton as " the remains of a human body, armed with a breastplate, a species of mail and arrows of brass, which remains he supposes to have belonged either to one of the race who inhabited this country for a time anterior to the so-called aborigines, and afterwards settled in Mexico or Guatemala, or to one of the crew of some Phoenician vessel that. blown out of her course, thus discovered the Western world long before the Christian era.

    "These remains were found in the town of Fall River, in Bristol County, Mass., about eighteen months since. In digging down a hill near the vi]lage, It large mass of earth slid off, leaving in the bank and partially uncovered a human skull, which, on examination, was found to belong to a body buried in a sitting posture, the head being about one foot below what had been for many years the surface of the ground. The surrounding earth was carefully removed and the body found to be enwrapped in a covering of coarse bark of a dark color. Within this envelope were found the remains of another of coarse cloth, made of fine bark and about the texture of a Manilla coffee-bag. On the breast was a plate of brass, thirteen inches long, six broad at the upper end and five at the lower. This plate appears to have been cast, and is from one-eighth to three thirty-seconds of an inch in thickness. It is so much corroded that whether or not anything was ever engraved upon it has not yet been ascertained. It is oval in form, the edges being irregular, apparently made so by corrosion.

   "Below the breastplate, and entirely encircling the body, was a belt composed of brass tubes,each four and a half inches in length and three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, arranged longitudinally and close together, the length of the tube being the width of the belt. The tubes are of thin brass, cast upon hollow reeds, and were fastened together by pieces of sinew. This belt was so placed as to protect the lower parts of the body below the breastplate. The arrows are of brass, thin, flat, and triangular in shape, with a round hole cut through near the base. The shaft was fastened to the head by inserting the latter in an opening at the end of the wood, and then tying it with a sinew through the round hole, a mode of constructing the weapon never practiced by the Indians, not even with their arrows of thin shell. Parts of the shaft still remain attached to some of them. When first discovered the arrows were in a sort of quiver of bark, which fell in pieces when exposed to the air.

    "The skull is much decayed, but the teeth are sound and apparently of a young man. The pelvis is much decayed and the smaller bones of the lower extremities are gone.

    "The integuments of the right knee, for four or five inches above and below, are in good preservation, apparently the size and shape of life, although quite black.

 " Considerable flesh is still preserved on the hands and arms, but more on the shoulders and elbows. On the back under the belt, and for two inches above and below, the skin and flesh are in good preservation, and have the appearance of being tanned. The chest is much compressed, but the upper viscera are probably entire. The arms are bent up, not crossed, so that the hands turned inwards touch the shoulders. The stature is about five and a half feet. Much of the exterior envelope was decayed, and the inner one appeared to be preserved only where it had been in contact with the brass.

 " The preservation of this body may be the result of some embalming process, and this hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the skin has the appearance of having been tanned, or it may be the accidental result of the action of the salts of the brass I during oxidation, and this latter hypothesis is supported by the fact that the skin and flesh have been preserved only where they have been in contact with or quite near the brass, or we may account for the preservation of the whole by supposing the presence of salt peter in the soil at the time of the deposit. In either way, the preservation of the remains is fully accounted for, and upon known chemical principles.

 "That the body was not one of the Indians we think needs no argument. We have seen some of the drawings taken from the sculptures found at Palenque, and in those the figures are represented with the breastplates, although smaller than the plate found at Fall River. On the figures at Palenque the bracelets and anklets seem to be of a manufacture precisely similar to the belt of tubes just described.

 " If the body found at Fall River be one of the Asiatic race, who transiently settled in Central America, and afterwards went to Mexico and founded those cities, in exploring the ruins of which such astonishing discoveries have recently been made, then we may well suppose also that it is one of the race whose exploits have, although without a date and almost without a certain name, been immortalized by Homer. Of the great race who founded cities and empires in their eastward march, and are finally lost in South America, the Romans seem to have had a glimmering tradition in the story of Evander.

   "But we rather incline to the belief that the remains found at Fall River belonged to the crew of a Phoenician vessel. The spot where they were found is on the sea-coast, and in the immediate neighborhood of Dighton Rock, famed for its hieroglyphic inscriptions, of which no sufficient explanation has yet been given, alla near which rock brazen vessels have been found. If this latter hypothesis be adopted, a part of it is that these mariners, the unwilling and unfortunate discoverers of a new world, lived some time after they landed, and having written their names, perhaps their epitaphs, upon the rock at Dighton, died, and were buried by the natives.

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