A team of Smithsonian Institution archaeologists, using trowels, paint brushes, bamboo sticks and plastic spoons, have uncovered what has been described as one of the best-preserved 17th-century skeletons ever found in the United States.

"This would be in great shape for an 18th- or 19th-century skeleton, let alone one from the 17th century," said Nicholas Luccketti, principal archaeologist for the Yorktown Archaeological Trust, the group that discovered the skeleton this autumn on a bluff overlooking the York River.The skeleton is in excellent condition, archaeologists at the site said, because after the coffin decayed, the bones were covered for more than 300 years with sandy soil, which allows water to drain through it and keeps everything around it well-preserved.

The grave site itself is so little disturbed by time that many of the two dozen iron coffin nails that were found there remained vertical - their position when the coffin lid was closed over the body of the person Luccketti judges to have been a Colonial period servant.

A throng of reporters and photographers watched as five archaeologists and a forensic anthropologist from Smithsonian unearthed the skeleton.

"She's become more famous 300 years after her death - if she is a she," Luccketti said.

She isn't. She is a he, according to Doug Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist, who said the shape of the pelvis, jaw bone and skull indicates that the person buried there was a man.

By examining the ridges on the pelvis, Owsley estimated that the person was between 25 and 29 years old when he died. The deeper the ridges, the younger the person, Owsley explained. What's more, Owsley found no signs of joint disease, which seldom affects younger people.

The bones are in such good shape that Owsley said he knew that the man's collar bone had once been broken but healed nicely and that he smoked a pipe, because the tip of one tooth had a tiny "pipe groove." Luccketti said a piece of a pipe bowl was found at the grave site, though there was no telling whether the man owned that pipe.

After Owsley uses X-rays to examine the skeleton further, he said, he will determine the man's age and race as well as his eating habits and whether he had any serious illnesses. Based on a quick examination of the bones, the man was probably "robust" and short, about 5 foot 6 or shorter, Owsley said.

Luccketti speculated that the man was a servant of the Reed family, which once owned the land that became Yorktown. The skeletons of the Reed family were found nearby in the 1930s, when utility lines were installed there.

Luccketti said he was convinced the man died in the mid-17th century because the only artifacts found at the grave site - two pieces of pottery and what's left of the pipe bowl - are both from the mid-17th century.

"That's a beautiful skeleton," said Owsley, who has examined thousands of them. "Just beautiful."