Geek Gifts 2011: Written in Bone nonfiction books

If you're shopping for a history or science buff, Justin James says these two Written in Bone books would make interesting gifts.

TV shows like Bones, NCIS, and CSI have become geek favorites in no small part because they use forensic science as a fundamental part of the shows (often with different amounts of accuracy). The Smithsonian Institution recently conducted a project using forensic science on remains found in the Chesapeake area from the early Colonial era to match the bodies to recorded events and to attempt to learn more about Colonial life. The project was detailed by Sally Walker in the book Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland.

In addition, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC has an exhibit called Written in Bone that features these remains, and there's a catalog available titled Written in Bone: Bone Biographer's Casebook. The two books add up to be a unique and interesting look at history through the eyes of a forensic scientist.

Note: I reviewed copies of the books that I purchased out-of-pocket.


  • Written in Bone: Bone Biographer's Casebook by Douglas Owsley and Karin Bruwelheide: 143 pages, $34.95 [non-member price] (from the Smithsonian Catalog)
  • Written In Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker: 144 pages, $16.75 (from Amazon)

What I like

  • Easy reading: Despite the scientific background of these books, the target audience is the layperson.
  • Fantastic pictures: I saw the exhibit, and while it is impossible to recreate the bone chilling effect of seeing a 400 year old skeleton of an infant, both books reveal details that the exhibit can't show, like closeup pictures and different angles of the bones.
  • Gorgeous design: Both books have a wonderful sense of design that really sets the mood. The exhibit catalog feels like a modern horror film, while the detailed book captures the feeling of the Colonial era.
  • Great content: If you are interested in seeing how forensics is powerful enough to reach all the way back across centuries, these books will draw you in.
  • Tasteful handling of subject matter: The books are about skeletons and filled with pictures of them, but they both avoid being garish with the subject; both books are appropriate for teenagers and adults in my opinion.

What I don't like

  • Lack of detail: Both books lack in-depth detail. While it is understandable (the catalog contains the same information that you would see on the plaques on an exhibit more or less, the other is written at a young adult level), the science lover in me wanted more details.
  • Price: The catalog is fairly expensive, considering that it is primarily page-filling pictures, and the content related to the Colonial era ends on page 94.
  • Lack of focus: The last third of the exhibit catalog delves into remains found elsewhere, such as those found in Croatia from WWII from a massacre.

Geek bottom line

Both of these books are great to read. I think that they should be bought as a pair, simply because the pictures in the exhibit catalog are so good, and it really gives the same feel as walking through the exhibit. That said, the exhibit catalog is the poorer value of the two, I think. While the pictures are great, it does not take long to peruse it, while the full book has a lot more detail. The full book is really aimed at a younger audience, but adults will enjoy it as well. I would love to see a more in-depth version of these two, combining the high-quality pictures from the catalog with the type of content from the book, but one that goes into deeper detail for those who really want to learn the science and history.

As it is, the two Written in Bone books provide a fascinating look into both the scientific research and the history of the United States. These books are the kinds of purchases that most people wouldn't get for themselves, but they will love it if someone got it for them as a gift.

Geek Gift Score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: ***
  • Geek factor: ***
  • Value: **
  • Overall: ***

For more reviews of tech gadgets, gizmos, games, and books, download the PDF of TechRepublic's Geek Gift Guide 2011.