I have a day off from my normal job and I find myself carefully wet sieving the cremated remains of a suspected Romano-British individual in the processing room at the local unit, but I’m not alone here. Instead I’m surrounded by recently excavated Anglo-Saxon remains drying slowly on paper towels, organised in numerous plastic trays on various shelves to my side and up above me. In each tray there is a plastic zip bag, the site code and context number inked on for identification purpose and later site reconstruction. By taking the right femoral head and neck (upper thigh) as an identifier of the minimum number of individuals (MNI), I count at least six individuals represented in the new assemblage, although there are a few trays I cannot quite see and as I am not here to look at them I do not uncover them. A quick look at the morphology (size and shape) of the individual skeletal elements is enough to see that, demographically speaking, adults and non-adults are represented in the assemblage.
Browsing the mandibles (lower jaw) that are present I can see a few without the 3rd molar fully erupted, one or two lying in crypts waiting to reach up for the shaft of light from the outside world that would never come. Another mandible has the majority of the teeth present, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars in each half, but displays severe enamel wear of the crowns of the teeth (the occlusal, or biting surface), indicative of a rough diet and probable middle to advanced adult age. The fact that most of the teeth are present suggest that the individual wasn’t too old though, as tooth loss is strongly correlated to increasing age for humans.
I turn my attention back to the cremated remains. These are something of a mystery having looked at the context sheets dating from the excavation itself. There is evidence for cremated non-human remains, likely to be bovine (cow to you and me) as there are a few distinctive teeth included in the bags in an associated context found near the cremated remains that I’m now processing, which itself has been bulk sampled at 100%. A proper look through the sieved cremated material, which has been processed in accordance with the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology guidelines, will have to wait though as they need to dry over the next few days, ideally for another few days after too. Once dry I can go through each fraction sieved (10mm, 6mm, 2mm) and sort as human and non-human, before identifying specific osteological features and assigning the fragments to either skull, limb, or trunk sections of the skeleton.
As I think about this I remember that I must complete this human osteology report soon.
For many people the thought of touching or analyzing human remains is too much, that in many minds remains are parceled off to the medical realm or are hurried to the cemetery to be removed out of sight. In reality though we are often surrounded by human remains, though we may not always know it and may not always want to know it. In archaeology the skeletal remains of humans are often the only direct biological matter to survive of individuals and past populations. They can encode and preserve a lot of information on biological matters and past cultural practices. This has been steadily recognized within the past century as osteological methodologies are refined for accuracy and new technology is applied in novel approaches to the remains unearthed. One of the prime concerns for any bioarchaeologist or human osteologist is that ethical codes and guidelines are adhered to, with the relevant legal permits acquired as appropriate. As I glance upon the presumed Anglo-Saxon remains I remember that these too were unexpected finds by the construction workers, I briefly wonder how they felt and what they thought on seeing them for the first time.
Anyhow, back to processing the cremation and to thinking about writing the report.
It is pretty interesting as although I’ve part-processed cremations within urns before, with careful micro-excavation spit by spit, I’ve never fully processed a cremation to completion. Whether these cremated remains represent human skeletal material, as the field notes state, remains a different matter though and it is one I am eager to solve…
- The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) promotes the study of understanding the ‘physical development of the human species from the past to the present’. As an association they provide research grants for projects in which all members of BABAO are eligible, as well as offering prizes for presentations and posters in their annual conference, which is held in the United Kingdom. I fully recommend attending and taking part if you are associated with any relevant field.