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Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.

These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 


The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.


The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.


A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.


Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information

Reflection During a Day of Skeletal Processing

8 Feb

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.


A day in the archive stores analysing non-adult skeletal remains from an archaeological site. Photograph by the author use a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please inform the author and credit as appropriate.

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…

Further Learning

  • 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.

Skeletal Series: The Basic Human Osteology Glossary

19 Dec

Introducing the Human Osteology Glossary

It is important for the budding human osteology student that they understand and correctly apply the basic terms used in the discipline to help identify and describe the skeletal anatomy under study.  Since human osteologists study the skeletal remains of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) the terminology used, specifically the anatomical terminology, has to be precise and correct as befitting the medical use of such terms.

Human osteology remains the foundation on which the disciplines of forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology are built upon, although it is noted that the disciplines can be misleading across international divides.  For example, in the United Kingdom bioarchaeology is still used to refer to the study of both human and non-human skeleton remains from archaeological sites, whilst bioarchaeology in the United States normally refers to human remains only.  It should also be noted here that the other related disciplines, such as palaeoanthropology and biological anthropology, study not just the modern human skeleton but also the skeletal and fossilized remains of extant (genera such as Pan, Pongo and Gorilla) and extinct hominins.  Nevertheless the terminology remains the same when describing the skeletal anatomy of both human and non-human individuals.

Glossary Arrangement

This short glossary is intended to provide a basic introduction to the terminology used in the disciplines that utilizes human osteology as a core focus for the research undertaken.  The terminology documented here also includes a brief description of the word and, where possible, an example of its use.  Primarily the glossary acts as a reference post in order to be used in conjunction with the Skeletal Series posts on this site, which help outline and introduce each skeletal element of the human body section by section and as appropriate.  However please note that the glossary is also arranged in a manner in which it befits the student who needs to quickly scan the list in order to find a specific and relevant word.

Therefore the glossary is arranged in a thematic presentation as follows:

1. Discipline Definitions
2. The Human Body:
– a) Macro
– b) Micro
– c) Growth
– d) Disease and Trauma
3. Anatomical Foundations:
– a) Anatomical Planes of Reference
– b) Directional Terminology
– c) Movement Terminology
4. Postmortem Skeletal Change
– a) Postmortem Skeletal Change

The glossary ends with an introduction to the terminology used to describe the postmortem aspects of body deposition.  This is because it is an important aspect and consideration of any skeletal analysis undertaken.  The terminology used in this section leads away from the strictly anatomical terminology of the sections above it and introduces some terms that are used in archaeology and associated disciplines.

Reference Note

Please note that the bibliography provided indicates a number of important texts from which this glossary was compiled.  The key text books highlighted also introduce the study of the human skeleton, from a number of different perspectives, including the gross anatomical, bioarchaeological and human evolutionary perspectives.  Find a copy of the books at your library or order a copy and become engrossed in the beauty of the bones and the evidence of life histories that they can hold.

The Glossary:

1) – Discipline Definitions

Bioanthropology:  A scientific discipline concerned with the biological and behavioral aspects of human beings, their related non-human primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, and their extinct hominin ancestors.  (Related Physical Anthropology).

Bioarchaeology:  The study of human and non-human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.  In the United States of America this term is used solely for the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.

Forensic Anthropology:  An applied anthropological approach dealing with human remains in legal contexts.  Forensic anthropologists often work with coroners and others, such as disaster victim identification teams, in analysing and identifying human remains (both soft and hard tissues) from a variety of contexts including but not limited ID’ing remains from natural disasters, police contexts, war zones, genocides, human rights violations, etc.

Human Osteology:  The study of human skeletal material.  Focuses on the scientific interpretation of skeletal remains from archaeological sites, including the study of the skeletal anatomy, bone physiology, and the growth and development of the skeleton itself.   

Palaeoanthropology:  The interdisciplinary study of earlier hominins.  This includes the study of their chronology, physical structure and skeletal anatomy, archaeological remains, geographic spans, etc. (Jurmain et al. 2011).

Physical Anthropology:  Concerned with the biological skeletal remains of both humans and extant and extinct hominins, anatomy, and evidence of behaviour.  The discipline is often considered congruent with the term bioanthropology, or biological anthropology.  (Related Bioanthropology).

2) a. – The Human Body: Macro

Appendicular Skeleton:  The skeletal bones of the limbs.  Includes the shoulder and pelvic girdles, however it does not include the sacrum.  Skeleton SK423 largely consisted of the non-fragmented disarticulated appendicular elements.

Axial Skeleton:  The skeletal elements of the trunk of the body.  Includes the ribs, vertebrae and sternum.  The body of SK424 was particularly fragmented in-situ, with little sign of excavation or post-excavation damage evidenced on the axial skeleton suggesting fragmentation post-burial.

Cortical (Compact) Bone:  The solid and dense bone found in the bone shafts and on the external surfaces of bone itself.  The cortical bone of the mid-shaft of the right humerus of the tennis player displayed increased thickening.  This is, in this individuals case whose physical history is known, due to the predominance of the right arm during intense and long-term use in physical exercise (see Wolff’s Law). 

Dentin (Dentine):  Calcified but slightly resilient dental connective tissue.  In human growth primary dentin appears during growth whereas secondary dentin forms after the root formation of the tooth is complete (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Diaphysis:  The shaft portion of a long bone.  The diaphysis of the femur is one of the longest shafts found in the human skeleton, as the femur is the longest bone.

Dry Bone:  Refers to archaeological bone where no soft, or wet, tissue survives, hence the bone is dry.  It should be noted that, when subject to x-rays for investigation, archaeological dry bone radiological images are improved due to a lack of soft tissues obscuring the bone condition.

Elements (Skeletal):  Used to refer to each individual bone.  The human adult body has, on average, 206 individual skeletal elements.

Enamel:  Enamel is an extremely hard brittle material which covers the crown of a tooth.

Endosteum:  A largely cellular membrane that lines the inner surface of bones which is ill-defined (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Epiphysis:  The epiphysis refers to the often proximal and distal ‘caps’ of long bones that develop from a secondary ossification centre.  The epiphysis of the long bones can, when used in conjunction with other skeletal markers of aging, particularly dentition, provide a highly accurate  age-at-death in non-adult human skeletal remains.

Medullary Cavity:  The cavity found inside the shaft of a long bone.  The medullary cavity of the femur is the site of the longest medullary cavity found in the human body.  The medullary cavity is the location where red and yellow bone marrow is stored and where the red and white blood cells are produced. 

Metaphyses:  The metaphyses refer to the expanded and flared ends of the shaft (or diaphysis) of long bones.  Both the femoral and humeral diaphyses display flared distal metaphyses which are indicative of their anatomical positioning.

Morphology:  The form and structure of an object.  The morphology of the femora is dictated by a variety of factors, not least the size, age, sex and weight of the individual.

Musculoskeletal System:  The musculoskeletal system provides the bony framework of the body in which the muscles attach onto and are able to leverage bones to induce movement.  The musculoskeletal system is responsible for a number of core bodily functions, including blood production and nourishment, alongside providing a stable and safe environment for vital organs.

Osteology:  The scientific study of bone.  Bones form the basis of the skeletal system of vertebrate animals, including humans.  In the United States of America bioarchaeology refers to the study of human bones within an archaeological context.

Periosteum:  The thin dense vascular connective tissue that covers the outer surfaces of bone during life, except on areas of articulation.  The periosteum tissue plays an important part in the maintenance of healthy bone, helping to also provide the body with blood via the bone marrow and associated vessels.  The periosteum provides an important area of osteogensis following a bone fracture.

Postcranial Skeleton:  All bones but the mandible and cranium.  The postcranial skeleton of SK543 was exceptionally well-preserved within the grave context but due to grave cutting the cranium and mandible were completely disturbed and not present within the context recorded.

Trabecular (Spongy) Bone:  Refers to the honeycomb like structure of bone found within the cavity of bones themselves.

2) b. – The Human Body: Micro

Cartilage:  Cartilage is a flexible connective tissue which consists of cells embedded in a matrix.  In the human skeletal system cartilage is found between joints, such as the knee and in forms such as the intervertebral disk in the spine and in the ribcage.  There are three types of cartilage: hyaline, fibrocartilage and elastic cartilage in the human skeletal system, although 28 different types of cartilage have now been identified in the human body as a whole (Gosling et al. 2008:9).

Collagen:  Collagen is a fibrous structural tissue in the skeleton which constitutes up to 90% of bone’s organic content (White & Folkens 2005: 42).

Haversian Canal (Secondary Osteons):  Microscopic canals found in compact, or cortical, bone that contain blood, nerve and lymph vessels, alongside marrow.

Hydroxyapatite:  A dense, inorganic, mineral matrix which helps form the second component of bone.  Together with collagen hydroxyapatite gives bone the unique ability to withstand and respond to physical stresses.

Lamellar (Mature) Bone:  Bone in which the ‘microscopic structure is characterized by collagen fibres arranged in layers or sheets around Haversian canals’ (White & Folkens 2005: 423).  Lamellar bone is mechanically strong.  Related woven (immature) bone.

Osteoblast:  Osteoblasts are the ‘bone-forming cells which are responsible for synthesizing and depositing bone material’ (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteoclast:  Osteoclasts are the cells responsible for the resorption of bone tissue.

Osteocyte:  Osteocytes are the living bone cell which is developed from an osteoblast (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteon:  The osteon is a Haversian system, ‘a structural unit of compact bone composed of a central vascular (Haversian) canal and the concentric lamellae surrounding it; a Primary Osteon is composed of a vascular canal without a cement line, whereas the cement line and lamellar bone organized around the central canal characterize a Secondary Osteon‘ (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Remodeling:  Remodeling is the cyclical process of bone resorption and bone deposition at one site.  The human skeleton continually remodels itself throughout life, and after full growth has been achieved towards the end of puberty.  Further to this bone is a tissue that responds to physical stress and remodels as appropriate. 

Woven (Immature) Bone:  characterized by the haphazard organisation of collagen fibres.  Primarily laid down following a fracture and later replaced by lamellar bone.  Woven bone is mechanically weak.  Related lamellar (mature) bone.

2) c. – The Human Body: Growth

Appositional Growth:  The process by which old bone that lines the medullary cavity is reabsorbed and new bone tissue is grown beneath the periosteum, which increases the bone diameter.

Endochondral Ossification:  One of two main processes of bone development in which cartilage precursors (called cartilage models) are gradually replaced by bone tissue (White & Folkens 2005: 421).

Epiphyseal (Growth) Plate:  The hyaline cartilage plate found at the metaphyses of the long bones during growth of the individual (i.e. non-adults), where bone growth is focused until full growth cycle has been completed.

Idiosyncratic:  Referring to the individual.  The normal morphology of the human skeleton, and its individual elements, is influenced by three main factors of variation: biological sex (sexual dimorphism), ontogenetic (age), and idiosyncratic (individual) factors.

Intramembranous Ossification:  One of two main processes of ‘bone development in which bones ossify by apposition on tissue within an embryonic connective tissue membrane’ (White & Folkens 2005: 422).

Ontogeny:  The growth, or development, of an individual.  Ontogeny can be a major factor in the morphological presentation of the human skeleton.

Osteogenesis:  The formation and development of bone.  Embryologically the development of bone ossification occurs during two main processes: intramembranous and endochondral ossification.

Wolff’s Law:  Theory developed by German anatomist and surgeon Julius Wolff (1836-1902) which stated that human and non-human bone responded to the loads, or stresses, under to which it is placed and remodels appropriately within a healthy individual.

Sexual Dimorphism:  The differences between males and females.  The human skeleton has, compared to some animal species, discrete differences in sexual dimorphism; however there are distinct functional differences in the morphology of certain elements which can be used to determine biological sex of the individual post-puberty.

2) d. – The Human Body: Disease and Trauma

Atrophy:  The wastage of an organ or body tissue due to non-use.  Atrophy can be an outcome of disease processes in which the nerves are damaged, leading to the extended, or permanent, non-use of a limb which can lead to muscle wastage and bone resorption.

Blastic Lesion: Expansive bone lesion in which bone is abnormally expanded upon as part of part of a disease process.  The opposite of lytic lesion.

Calculus: Tartar; a deposit of calcified dental plaque on the surface of teeth.  The calculus found on the teeth of the archaeological skeleton can contain a wealth of information on the diet and extramasticatory activities of the individual.

Callus:  The hard tissue which is formed in the osteogenic (bone cell producing) layer of the periosteum as a fracture repair tissue.  This tissue is normally replaced by woven bone, which is in turn replaced by lamellar (or mature) bone as the bone continues to remodel during the healing process.

Caries:  Caries are ‘a disease characterized by the ‘progressive decalcification of enamel or dentine; the hole or cavity left by such decay’ (White & Folkens 2005: 420).  The extensive caries present on the 2nd right mandibular molar of Sk344 nearly obliterates the occlusal (chewing) surface of the tooth.

Compound Fracture:  A fracture in which the broken ends of the bone perforate the skin.  A compound fracture can be more damaging psychologically to the individual, due to the sight of the fracture itself and soft tissue damage to the skin and muscle.  Compound fractures also lead to an increased risk of fat embolism (or clots) entering the circulatory system via marrow leakage, which can be potentially fatal.

Dysplasia:  The abnormal development of bone tissue.  The bone lesions of fibrous dysplasia display as opaque and translucent patches compared to normal healthy bone on X-ray radiographic images.

Eburnation: Presents as polished bone on surface joints where subchondral bone has been exposed and worn.  Osteoarthritis often presents at the hip and knee joints where eburnation is present on the proximal femoral head and distal femoral condyle surfaces, alongside the adjacent tibia and iliac joint surfaces.

Hyperostosis:  An abnormal growth of the bone tissue.  Paget’s disease of bone is partly characterized by the hyperostosis of the cranial plates, with particularly dense parietal and frontal bones.

Hyperplasia:  An excessive growth of bone, or other, tissues.

Hypertrothy:  An increase in the volume of a tissue or organ.

Hypoplasia:  An insufficient growth of bone or other tissue.  Harris lines are dense transverse lines found in the shafts of long bones, which are indicative of arrested growth periods, as non-specific stress events, in the life of the individual.  Harris lines can often only be identified via X-ray radiography or through visual inspection of internal bone structure.

Lytic Lesion:  Destructive bone lesion as part of a disease process.  The opposite of a blastic lesion.  Syphilitic lytic bone lesions often pit and scar the frontal, parietal and associated facial bones of the skull.

Osteoarthritis:  Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, which is characterized by the destruction of the articular cartilage in a joint.  This often leads to eburnation on the bone surface.  Bony lipping and spur formation often also occur adjacent to the joint.  This is also commonly called Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Osteophytes:  Typically small abnormal outgrowths of bone which are found at the articular surface of the bone as a feature of osteoarthritis.  Extensive osteophytic lipping was noted on the anterior portion of the vertebrae bodies of T2-L3 which, along with the evidence of eburnation, bony lipping and spurs presenting bilaterally on the femora and tibiae, present as evidence of osteoarthritis in SK469.

Pathognomonic:  A pathological feature that is characteristic for a particular disease as it is a marked intensification for a diagnostic sign or symptom.  A sequestrum (a piece of dead bone that has become separated from normal, or healthy, bone during necrosis) is normally considered a pathgonomic sign of osteomyelitis. 

Pathological Fracture:  A bone fracture that occurs due to the result of bones already being weakened by other pathological or metabolic conditions, such as osteoporosis (White & Folkens 2005: 424).

Palaeopathology:  The study of ancient disease and trauma processes in human skeletal (or mummified) remains from archaeological sites.  Includes the diagnosis of disease, where possible.  A palaeopathological analysis of the skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record is an important aspect of recording and contextualising health in the past.

Periodontitis:  Inflammation around the tissues of a tooth, which can involve the hard tissues of the mandibular and maxilla bone or the soft tissues themselves.  Extensive evidence of periodontitis on both the mandible and maxilla suggests a high level of chronic infection.

Periostitis: The inflammation of the periosteum which is caused by either trauma or infection, this can be either acute or chronic.  The anterior proximal third of the right tibia displayed extensive periostitis suggesting an a persistent, or long term, incidence of infection.

Radiograph:  Image produced on photographic film when exposed to x-rays passing through an object (White & Folkens 2005: 425).  The radiographic image of the femora produced evidence of Harris lines which were not visible on the visual inspection of the bones.

3) a. – Anatomical Planes of Reference

Anatomical Position (Standard):  This is defined as ‘standing with the feet together and pointing forward, looking forward, with none of the leg bones crossed from a viewer’s perspective and palms facing forward’ (White & Folkens 2005: 426).  The standard anatomical position is used when referring to the planes of reference, and for orientation and laying out of the skeletal remains of an individual for osteological examination, inventory, and/or analysis.

Coronal (frontal/Median):  The coronal plane is a vertical plane that divides the body into an equal forward and backward (or anterior and posterior) section.  The coronal plane is used along with the sagittal and transverse planes in order to describe the location of the body parts in relation to one another.

Frankfurt Horizontal:  A plane used to systematically view the skull which is defined by three osteometric points:  the right and left porion points (near the ear canal, or exterior auditory meatus) and left orbitale.

Oblique Plane:  A plane that is not parallel to the coronal, sagittal or transverse planes.  The fracture to the mid shaft of the left tibia and fibula was not a transverse or spiral break, it is an oblique fracture as evidenced by the angle of the break. 

Sagittal:  A vertical plane that divides the body into symmetrical right and left halves.

Transverse:  Situated or extending across a horizontal plane.  A transverse fracture was noted on the midshaft of the right femur.  The fracture was indicative of a great force having caused it, likely in a traumatic incident.

3) b. – Anatomical Directional Terminology

Superior:  Superior refers towards the head end of the human body, with the most superior point of the human body the parietal bone at the sagittal suture (White & Folkens 2005: 68).

Inferior:  Inferior refers towards the foot, or the heel, which is the calcaneus bone.  Generally this is towards the ground.  The tibia is inferior to the femur.

Anterior:  Towards the front of the body.  The sternum is anterior to the vertebral column.

Posterior:  Towards the back of the body.  The occipital bone is posterior to the frontal bone of the cranium.

Proximal:  Near the axial skeletonThe term is normally used for the limb bones, where for instance the proximal end of the femur is towards the os coxa.

Medial:  Towards the midline of the body.  The right side of the tongue is medial to the right side of the mandible.

Lateral:  The opposite of medial, away from the midline of the body.  In the standard anatomical position the left radius is lateral to the left ulna.

Distal:  furthest away from the axial skeleton; away from the body.  The distal aspect of the humerus articulates with the proximal head of the radius and the trochlear notch of the ulna.

Internal:  Inside.  The internal surface of the frontal bone has the frontal crest, which is located in the sagittal plane.

External: Outside.  The cranial vault is the external surface of the brain.

Endocranial:  The inner surface of the cranial vault.  The brain fills the endocranial cavity where it sits within a sack.

Ectocranial:  The outer surface of the cranial vault.  The frontal bosses (or eminences) are located on the ectocranial surface of the frontal bone.

Superficial:  Close to the surface of the body, i.e. towards the skin.  The bones of the cranium are superficial to the brain.

Deep:  Opposite of superficial, i.e. deep inside the body and far from the surface.  The lungs are deep to the ribs, but the heart is deep to the lungs.

Palmar:  Palm side of the hand.  The palm side of the hand is where the fingers bear fingerprints.

Plantar:  The plantar side of the foot is the sole.  The plantar side of the foot is in contact with the ground during normal ambulation.

Dorsal:  Either the top of the foot or the back of the hand.  The ‘dorsal surface often bears hair whilst the palmar or plantar surfaces do not’ (White & Folkens 2005: 69).

3) c. – Anatomical Movement Terminology

Abduction:  Abduction is a laterally directed movement in the coronal plane away from the sagittal, or median, plane.  It is the opposite of adduction.  Standing straight, with the palm of the left hand anterior, raise the left arm sideways until it is horizontal with the shoulder: this is the action of abducting the left arm.

Adduction:  Adduction is the medially directed movement in the coronal plane towards the sagittal, or median, plane.  It is the opposite of abductionStanding straight, with the palm of the right hand anterior, and the right arm raised sideways until it is horizontal with the shoulder, move the arm down towards the body.  This is adduction.

Circumduction:  Circumduction is a ‘circular movement created by the sequential combination of abduction, flexion, adduction, and extension’ (Schwartz 2007: 373).  The guitarist who performs the action of windmilling during playing is circumducting their plectrum holding limb.

Extension:  Extension is a movement in the sagittal plane around a transverse axis that separates two structures.  It is the opposite of flexionThe extension of the forearm involves movement at the elbow joint.

Flexion:  A bending movement in the saggital plane and around a transverse axis that draws two structures toward each other (Schwartz 2007: 374).  It is the opposite of extensionThe flexion of the forearm involves movement at the elbow joint.

Lateral Rotation:  The movement of a structure around its longitudinal axis which causes the anterior surface to face laterally.  It is the opposite of medial rotation.

Medial Rotation:  The movement of a structure around its longitudinal axis that causes the anterior surface to face medially.  It is the opposite of lateral rotation (Schwartz 2007: 376).

Opposition: The movement of the ‘thumb across the palm such that its “pad” contracts the “pad” of another digit; this movement involves abduction with flexion and medial rotation’ (Schwartz 2007: 377).

4) a. – Postmortem Skeletal Change

Antemortem:  Before the time of death.  The evidence for the active bone healing on both the distal radius and ulna diaphyses, with a clean fracture indicating use of a bladed instrumented, suggests that amputation of the right hand occurred antemortem. 

Bioturbation:  The reworking of soils and associated sediments by non-human agents, such as plants and animals.  Bioturbation can lead to the displacement of archaeological artefacts and structural features and displace deposited human skeletal bone.  Evidence of bioturbation in the cemetery was noted, as irregular tunnels were located across a number of different grave contexts suggesting the action of a burrowing or nesting mammal.  This led to the disarticulation of skeletal material within the grave contexts themselves which, on first investigation, may have led to an incorrect analysis of the sequence of events following the primary deposition of the body within the grave.

Commingled:  An assemblage of bone containing the remains of multiple individuals, which are often incomplete and heavily fragmented.  The commingled mass grave found at the Neolithic site of Talheim, in modern southern Germany, suggest that, along with the noted traumatic injuries prevalent on the individuals analysed, rapid and careless burial in a so-called ‘death pit’ took place by the individuals who carried out the massacre.  The site is a famous Linearbandkeramik (LBK) location which dates to around 5000 BC, or the Early European Neolithic.  Similar period mass burials include those at Herxheim, also in Germany, and Schletz-Asparn in nearby Austria.

Diagenesis:  The chemical, physical, and biological changes undergone by a bone through time.  This is a particularly important area of study as the conservation of bones must deal with bacteria and fungal infection of conserved bone if the skeletal material is to be preserved properly.  Analysis of the diagenesis of skeletal material can also inform the bioarchaeologist of the peri and postmortem burial conditions of the individual by comparing the environmental contexts that the bone had been introduced to.

Perimortem: At, or around, the time of death.  The decapitation of SK246 occurred perimortem as evidenced by the sharp bladed unhealed trauma to the associated body,  pedicles, lamina and spinal arches of the C3 and C4 vertebrae.

Postmortem: Refers to the period after the death of the individual.  It is likely that the body had been moved postmortem as indicated by position of the body in the bedroom and by the extensive markers on the skin, suggesting physical manipulation and accidental contusions.  Further to this the pooling of the blood within the first few hours postmortem was not indicative of where the body was located at the time of discovery.

Postmortem Modification:  Modifications, or alterations, that occur to the skeletal remains after the death of the individual.  No postmortem modification of the skeletal elements of SK543 was noted, however extensive evidence of bioturbation in the form of root action was noted on across the majority (> 80%) of the surface of the surviving skeletal elements recovered.

Taphonomy:  The study of processes that can affect the skeletal remains between the death of the individual and the curation, or analysis, of the individual.  There are a variety of natural and non-natural taphonomic processes that must be considered in the analysing of human skeletal material from archaeological, modern and forensic contexts.  This can include natural disturbances, such as bioturbation, or non-natural, such as purposeful secondary internment of the body or skeletal remains.

Note on the Terminology Used & Feedback

The terminology used above, and their definitions, are taken in part from the below sources.  Direct quotations are referenced to the source and page.  They, the sources in the bibliography, are a small handful of some of the exceptional books available which help to introduce the human skeletal system and the importance of being able to identify, study and analyse the bones in a scientific manner.  The human skeletal glossary present here is subject to revision, amendments and updates, so please do check back to see what has been included.  Finally, I heartily advise readers to leave a comment if revisions, or clarifications, are needed on any of the terms or definitions used in the glossary.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Gosling, J. A., Harris, P. F., Humpherson, J. R., Whitmore, I., Willan, P. L. T., Bentley, A. L., Davies, J. T. & Hargreaves, J. L. 2008. Human Anatomy: Colour Atlas and Texbook (5th Edition). London: Mosby Elsevier.

Jurmain, R., Kilgrore, L. & Trevathan, W. 2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Larsen, C. S. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. E. 2007. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease (3rd Edition). Stroud: The History Press.

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction Human Skeletal Morphology, Development, and Analysis (2nd Edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Death as Life: Guardian Article on the Science of Human Decomposition

6 May

The former neuroscientist and current science journalist Mo Costandi has a new article in The Guardian titled Life After Death: The Science of Human Decomposition.  It is well worth a read for those interested in how the body changes and starts to break down immediately following death, with new insights into the ecology of death itself.  It is well-known that, as the body goes through the initial death and decomposition stages towards skeletonization, it plays host to a wide range of insect life.  However it is only really in the past few years that the study of the so-called thanatomicrobiome has really blossomed, particularly with the rise of the ‘body farms’ across the world where human remains can be scientifically studied and sampled in-situ, in a variety of both buried or non-buried contexts which mimic where bodies are found (Can et al. 2014).  (Although sadly the United Kingdom still lacks a human body farm, there is an animal body farm at Glywndr University in Wales, created by forensic scientists at the university to study taphonomic change in non-human corpses).

There are obvious applications in understanding the mechanisms of the thanatomicrobiome and of the ecology present, particularly with the application of the methods in the forensic sciences in helping to pinpoint the time of death of an individual.  As Costandi demonstrates in his remarkable article the human body can be a veritable oasis of life in death, playing host to many species of insect life – this is particularly fascinating for forensic entomologists and anthropologists, but also to bioarchaeologists who work in conditions where the remains, and life stage, of insects can be identified and placed within a certain cycle of decomposition stage, if found within the context of a body.

It is also particularly interesting for those who study bioarchaeology as it highlights the differentiation found not just between bodies in the act of decomposition but also throughout the same body itself, and how this can change due to body location and environment.  This is highlighted by the observations of certain insects at unexpected places, perhaps taking actions that one would not expect – that is very important for the forensic sciences and bioarchaeological sciences as it can determine the theorised location of the body and if the body has moved after death took place but before retrieval (Lindgren et al. 2015).  The action of the gut microbiome also plays a key role in the decomposition of the body as it aids greatly in the decomposition of the body as whole during the biomolecular breakdown of the bodies numerous and varied cells.  The composition of it can also vary from person to person.  The understanding of the decomposition stages and of the taphonomic sequences in the forensic or archaeological record is thus vital to understanding the context of the body itself; whether this helps to identify if the individual underwent a funerary ritual and/or mortuary processing or to identifying whether the individual was buried in a clandestine or a non-normative manner.

Further Information

  • Mo Costandi’s article for the Guardian newspaper can be read here.


Can, I., Javan, G. T., Pozhitkov, A. E. & Noble, P. A. 2014. Distinctive Thanatomicrobiome Signatures Found in the Blood and Internal Organs of Humans. Journal of Microbiological Methods. 106: 1-7.

Lindgren, N. K., Sisson, M. S., Archambeault, A. D., Rahlwes, B. C., Willets, J. R. & Bucheli, S. R. 2015. Four Forensic Entomology Case Studies: Records and Behavioral Observations on Seldom Reported Cadaver Fauna with Notes on Relevant Previous Occurrences and Ecology. Journal of Medical Entomology. 52 (2): 143-150.

Aging: ldentifying Puberty in the Osteoarchaeological Record

15 Feb

Aside from some recent technological mishaps (now resolved!), which has resulted in a lack of posts recently, I’ve also been doing some preliminary research into human skeletal aging and human biological aging in general.  Partly this has been out of general interest, but it was also background reading for a small project that I was working on over the past few months.

Knowledge of the aging of the skeletal system is of vital importance to the bioarchaeologist as it allows age estimates to be made of both individuals and of populations (and thus estimates of lifespans between generations, populations and periods) in the archaeological record.  The aging of human remains, along with the identification of male or female biological sex (not gender, which is socially constructed) and stature in adults, when possible, provides one of the main cornerstones of being able to carry out a basic demographic analysis of past populations – estimates of age, sex, stature at death, the construction of life tables and the construction of mortality profiles of populations, etc.  At a basic level inferences on the funerary treatment on individuals of different ages, and between different periods, can also be made.  For example, in identifying the possible differential treatment of non-adults and adults in funerary customs or of treatment during their lifetime as revealed by their burial context according to their age-at-death.

Growing Pains

However, aging is not quite straight forward as merely understanding and documenting the chronological age of a person – it is also about understanding the biological age of the body, where the body undergoes physiological and structural changes according to the biological growth stage (release of hormones influencing growth, maturation, etc).  Also of importance for the bioarchaeologist and human osteologist to consider is the understanding of the impact and the implications that the environment (physical, nutritional and cultural) can also have on the development and maturation of the skeletal system itself.  Taken as such aging itself is a dynamic process that can depend on a number of co-existing internal and external factors.

For instance, environmental stresses (i.e. nutritional access) can leave skeletal evidence in the form of non-specific markers of stress that can indicate episodes of stunted growth, such as Harris lines on the long bones (identifiable via x-rays), or episodic stress periods via the dentition (the presence of linear or pitted enamel hypoplasias on the teeth) (Lewis 2007).  Knowing what these indications look like on the skeleton means that the bioarchaeologist can factor in episodes of stress which may have led to a temporary cessation of bone growth during childhood or puberty, a period where the bones haven’t achieved their full adult length, due to a lack of adequate nutrition and/or physical stresses (White & Folkens 2005: 329).

It is recognised that humans have a relatively long adolescence and that Homo sapiens, as a species, senescence rather slowly.  Senescence is the process of gradual deterioration of function that increases the mortality of the organism after maturation has been completed (Crews 2003).  Maturation simply being the completion of growth of an individual themselves.  In an osteological context maturation is complete when the skeleton has stopped growing – the permanent dentition, or 2nd set of teeth, have fully erupted, and the growth of the individual skeletal elements has been completed and the bones are fully fused into their adult forms.

This last point refers to epiphyseal growth and fusion, where, in the example below, a long bone has ossified from several centres (either during intramembranous or endochondral ossification during initial growth) and the epiphyses in long bones fuses to the main shaft of the bone, the diaphysis, via the metaphysis after the growth plate has completed full growth following puberty (usually between 10-19 years of age, with females entering puberty earlier than males) (Lewis 2007: 64).  Bioarchaeologists, when studying the remains of non-adults, rely primarily on the development stage of the dental remains, diaphysis length of the long bones (primarily the femora) and the epiphyseal fusion stage of the available elements in estimating the age-at-death of the individual (White & Folkens 2005: 373).

bone growth

A basic diagram showing the ossification and growth of a long bone until full skeletal maturation has been achieved  Notice the fusion points of the long bones, where the epiphysis attaches to the diaphysis (shaft of the bone) via the metaphysis. Image credit: Midlands Technical College. (Click to enlarge).

After an individual has attained full skeletal maturation, the aging of the skeleton itself is often reliant on wear analysis (such as the wearing of the teeth), or on the rugosity of certain features, such as the auricular surface of the ilium and/or of the pubic symphysis, for instance, dependent on the surviving skeletal elements of the individual.  More general biological post-maturation changes also include the loss of teeth (where there is a positive correlation between tooth loss and age), the bend (or kyphosis) of the spinal column, and a general decrease in bone density (which can lead to osteoporosis) after peak bone mass has been achieved at around 25-30 years old, amongst other more visible physical and mental features (wrinkling of the skin, greying of the hair, slower movement and reaction times) (Crews 2003).

Gaps in the Record

There are two big gaps in the science of aging of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts: a) ascertaining the age at which individuals undergo puberty (where the secondary growth spurt is initiated and when females enter the menarche indicating potential fertility, which is an important aspect of understanding past population demographics) and b) estimating the precise, rather than relative, age-at-death of post-maturation individuals.  The second point is important because it is likely that osteoarchaeologists are under-aging middle to old age individuals in the archaeological record as bioarchaeologists tend to be conservative in their estimate aging of older individuals, which in turn influences population lifespan on a larger scale.  These two issues are compounded by the variety of features that are prevalent in archaeological-sourced skeletal material, such as the effects of taphonomy, the nature of the actual discovery and excavation of remains, and the subsequent access to material that has been excavated and stored, amongst a myriad of other processes.

So in this short post I’ll focus on highlighting a proposed method for estimating puberty in human skeletal remains that was published by Shapland & Lewis in 2013 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Identifying Puberty in Human Skeletal Remains

In their brief communication Shapland and Lewis (2013: 302) focus on the modern clinical literature in isolating particular developmental markers of pubertal stage in children and apply it to the archaeological record.  Concentrating on the physical growth (ossification and stage of development) of the mandibular canine and the iliac crest of the ilium (hip), along with several markers in the wrist (including the ossification of the hook of the hamate bone, alongside the fusion stages of the hand phalanges and the distal epiphysis of the radius) Shapland and Lewis applied the clinical method to the well-preserved adolescent portion (N=78 individuals, between 10 to 19 years old at death) of the cemetery population of St. Peter’s Church in Barton-Upon-Humber, England.  The use of which spanned the medieval to early post-medieval periods (AD 950 to the early 1700) (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

All of the individuals used in this study had their age-at-death estimated on the basis of dental development only – this is due to the strong correlation with chronological age and the limited influence of the environment and nutrition has in dental development.  Of the 78 individuals under study 30 were classed as probable males, 27 as probable females and 21 classed as indeterminate sex – those classed as a probable male or female sex were carefully analysed as the authors highlight that assigning sex in adolescent remains is notoriously problematic (the ‘holy grail’ of bioarchaeology – see Lewis 2007: 47), therefore only those individuals which displayed strong pelvic traits and were assigned an age under the 16 years old at the age-at-death were assigned probable male and female status.  Those individuals aged 16 and above at age-at-death were assigned as probable male and female using both pelvic traits and cranial traits, due to the cranial landmarks being classed as secondary sexual characteristics (i.e. not functional differences, unlike pelvic morphology which is of primary importance) which arise during puberty itself and shortly afterwards (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304-306).

The method involves observing and noting the stage of each of the five indicators (grouped into 4 areas of linear progression) listed above.  It is worth mentioning them here in the sequence that they should be observed in, together in conjunction with the ascertained age at death via the dental analysis of the individual, which is indicative of their pubertal stage:

1) Mineralization of the Mandibular Canine Root

As noted above dental development aligns closer with chronological age than hormonal changes, however ‘the mineralization root of the mandibular canine may be an exception to this rule’ (Shapland & Lewis: 303). This tooth is the most variable and least accurate for aging, aside from the 3rd molar, and seems to be correlated strongly with the pubertal growth spurt (where skeletal growth accelerates during puberty until the Peak Height Velocity, or PHV, is reached) than any of the other teeth.  In this methodology the stage of the canine root is matched to Demirjian et al’s (1985) stages, where ‘Stage F’ indicates onset of the growth spurt and ‘Stage G’ is achieved during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt before PHV (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 303).

3) Ossification of the Wrist and the Hand

The ossification of the hook of the hamate bone and of the phalangeal epiphyses are widely used indicators in medicine of the pubertal stage, however in an archaeological context they can be difficult to recover from an excavation due to their small and discrete nature.  The hook (hammulus) of the hamate bone (which itself can be palpated if the left hand is held palm up and the bottom right of the hand itself is pinched slightly as a bony protrusion should be felt, or vice versa if you are left handed!) ossifies during the acceleration phase of the growth spurt in both boys and girls before HPV is attained.  The appearance, development and fusion of the phalangeal epiphyses are also used to indicate pubertal stage, where the fusion has been correlated with PHV in medical research.  With careful excavation the epiphyses of the hand can be recovered if present.

4) Ossification of the Iliac Crest Epiphysis

As this article notes that within orthopaedics it is noted that the ‘Risser sign‘ of the crest calcification is commonly used as an indicator of the pubertal growth spurt.  The presence of an ossified iliac crest, or where subsequent fusion has begun, can be taken as evidence that the PHV has passed and that menarche in girls has likely started, although exact age cannot be clarified.  The unfused iliac crest epiphyses are rarely excavated and recorded due to their fragile nature within the archaeological context, but their absence should never be taken as evidence that this developmental stage has not been reached (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

5) Ossification and Epiphsyeal Fusion of the Distal Radius

The distal radius epiphysis provides a robust skeletal element that is usually recovered from archaeological contexts if present and unfused.  The beginning of the fusion is known to occur during the deceleration phase of puberty at around roughly 14 years of age in females and 15 years of age in males, with fusion completing around 16 years old in females and 18 years old in males (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 304).

Results and Importance

Intriguingly although only 25 (32%) of the 78 individual skeletons analysed in this study had all five of the indicators present, none of those presented with the sequence out of step (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 306).  The initial results indicate that it is quite possible to identify pubertal growth stage for adolescent individuals in the archaeological record based on the preservation, ossification and maturation stage of the above skeletal elements.  Interestingly, the research highlighted that for all adolescents examined in this study from Barton-Upon-Humber indicated that the pubertal growth spurt had started before 12 years of age (similar to modern adolescents), but that is extended for a longer time than their modern counterparts (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 308).  This was likely due to both genetic and environmental factors that affected the individuals in this well-preserved medieval population.

Further to this there is the remarkable insight into the possible indication of the age of the females entering and experiencing menarche, which had ramifications for the consideration of the individual as an adult in their community, thereby attaining a probable new status within their community (as is common in many parts of the world, where initiation ceremonies are often held to mark this important stage of sexual fertility in a woman’s life).  This is the first time that this has been possible to identify from skeletal remains alone and marks a landmark (in my view) in the osteological analysis of adolescent remains.

As the authors conclude in the paper the method may best be suited to large cemetery samples where it may help provide a ‘broader picture of pubertal development at a population level’ (Shapland & Lewis 2013: 309).  Thus this paper helps bridge an important gap between childhood and adulthood by highlighting the physiological changes that individuals go through during the adolescent phase of human growth, and the ability to parse out the intricate details our individual lives from the skeletal remains themselves.


Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. E. 2007. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shapland, F. & Lewis, M. E. 2013. Brief Communication: A Proposed Osteological Method for the Estimation of Pubertal Stage in Human Skeletal Remains. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 151: 302-310.

White, T. D. & Folkens, P. A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting John hawks comments on the article in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.

– taken from John Hawks (2014, emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology and population variation.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the United Kingdom, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).

Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.

There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg above ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014, emphasis mine).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.


Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

I’ve been reading Doug’s latest blog series on archaeological publishing with increasing interest.  I’ve recently ordered a copy of Mary E. Lewis’s 2007 publication The Bioarchaeology of Childhood: Perspectives  from Biological and Forensic Anthropology, and I am very much looking forward to reading it as I am keen to improve my own knowledge of human non-adults, i.e. of juvenile remains.  It has also sadly been a while since I have ordered a new osteology reference book.  This isn’t from a lack of bioarchaeology books that I would like to read, far from it, but it is partially due the cost of buying such copies.  There have been a few recently released books (such as the 2014 Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict by Knüsel et al. and the 2013 Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin et al.) that I’d love to own for my own collection, but I’m waiting until they come out in paperback as they are rather expensive otherwise.

On this blog I have often mentioned discussed and highlighted the wonders of the fantastic Human Bone Manual (2005) by White & Folkens, of Larsen’s (1997) Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton reference book, and of Gosling et al.’s (2008) Human Anatomy: Colour  Atlas and Text Book, amongst a few others.  But I haven’t really mentioned other texts that have been especially helpful in piecing together the value of studying and understanding the context of human osteology for me, personally.  The following publications are a collection of reference books and technical manuals that have proved helpful in understanding human and non-human skeletal material, adult and non-adult remains, and on various aspects of forensic science.  I have dipped into some, read others completely – regardless they are of importance and of some use to the human osteologist and osteoarchaeologist.

So without further ado here are a few osteological and forensic themed books that have proved especially helpful to me over the past few years (and hopefully for many more years to come!):

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

I. Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Colour Atlas. Diane L. France. 2009. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Aimed at the forensic anthropologist, this concise comparative osteology guide on how to identify human skeletal remains compares and highlights anatomical differences between numerous (largely North American) mammal species (such as seal, cow, mountain sheep, domestic sheep, moose etc.).  This book highlights well the challenges faced in recognising skeletal material in the field, and trying to distinguish whether the remains are human or not.  Organised largely by element from superior to inferior (crania to pedal phalanges) into three sections, each detailing a different theme – 1. General Osteology (which includes gross/anatomy/growth/development), 2. major Bones of Different Animals (which are grouped by bone) and 3. Skeletal Elements of Human and Nonhuman Animals (which includes bones from each species shown together).  This is a great immediate reference to recognising the osteological landmarks of various species.  This book should be of particular importance to forensic anthropologists, osteoarchaeologists and zooarchaeologists.

II. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. Louise Scheuer & Sue Black (illustrations by Angela Christie). 2000. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

At the time of publication this volume was one of the few human osteological books focusing purely on the developmental osteology of juveniles.  Arranged into eleven chapters, the book details an introduction to skeletal development and aging, bone development and ossification, and embryological development before focusing chapters to specific areas of the human body (vertebral column, pectoral girdle, lower limb etc.).  The book is really quite important in understanding the juvenile skeletal, as to the untrained eye juvenile material can look nonhuman.  For any forensic anthropologist, human osteologists, or osteoarchaeologist examining juvenile skeletal material this volume is one of the best publications available in order to recognise and understand the skeletal anatomy that can be present at forensic or archaeological sites.  It is also recommended for field archaeologists who may come across juvenile skeletal material and be unaware of what it exactly is.

III. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Arthur C. Aufdeheide & Conrado Rodríguez-Martín (including a dental chapter by Odin Langsjoen). 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A standard reference book in the fields of archaeology, palaeopathology and human osteology, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology presents concise yet detailed descriptions and photographs documenting the variety of diseases and trauma that can affect the human skeleton.  This is a standard reference book that is heavily used in the osteoarchaeological field.  Split into chapters that detail each kind of skeletal lesion, and its recognition, within a type (endocrine disorders, skeletal dysplasia, metabolic disease, trauma, infectious diseases, etc.), the volume describes contextualises each entry with its known history, etiology, epidemiology, geography and antiquity.  Soft tissues diseases that can be found on mummies, or otherwise fleshed bodies from archaeological contexts, are also highlighted and discussed.

IV. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains: Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 28Donald J. Ortner & Walter G. J. Putschar. 1981. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

As above, this publication is another standard reference book for identifying pathological conditions in the human skeletal.  The 1981 edition is now slightly out of date regarding the etiology of some of the diseases discussed in this work, but the photographic images depicting the gross osteological change are still reliable.  Regardless this is still a vital book in understanding the development and sheer breadth of palaeopathology as a field in itself.

V. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 1997. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Forensic taphonomy,  the study of the processes that affect decomposition, burial and erosion of  bodies, is the focus of this publication.  This edited volume contains chapters discussing a wide range of different aspects of forensic taphonomy.  Split into five sections (1. taphonomy in the forensic context, 2. Modifications of soft tissue, bone, and associated materials, 3. Scavenged remains, 4. Buried and protected remains, 5. Remains in water) the book provides an overall perspective on important issues with pertinent case studies and techniques referenced throughout.

VI. Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by William D. Haglund & Marcella H. Sorg. 2001. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 

The second volume of the Forensic Taphonomy publication, this updated edition deals more widely with the issues that surround the bioarchaeological perspectives of forensic taphonomy, and how it relates to forensic anthropology.  This version includes chapters focusing on mass graves and their connection to war crimes (archaeological and forensic approaches), understanding the microenvironment surrounding human remains, interpretation of burned remains, updates in geochemical and entomological analysis,  and also highlights the updated field techniques and laboratory analysis.  Again this is another hefty publication and one that I have only dipped in and out of, but it is well worth a read as it can bring new insights into the archaeological contexts of human remains.

VII. Skeletal Trauma: Identification of Injuries Resulting from Human Rights Abuse and Armed Conflict. Edited by Erin H. Kimmerle & José Pablo Baraybar. 2008. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

This publication focuses on human rights violations in conflicts where forensic evidence is to be used in international tribunals.  It highlights a variety of case studies throughout each of the eight chapters from the numerous contributors (including the late Clyde Snow), describing both the protocols for forensic examination in human rights abuse and violations to the specifics of different classes of trauma (blast, blunt force trauma, skeletal evidence of torture, gunfire etc.).  Importantly the first two chapters focus on an epidemiological approach to forensic investigations of abuse and to the differential diagnoses of skeletal injuries that forensic anthropologists should be aware of (congenital or pathological conditions, peri- vs postmortem injuries, normal skeletal variation etc.).

VIII. The Colour Atlas of the Autopsy. Scott A. Wagner. 2004. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

A slight deviation from the curve above perhaps, but this is an informative read on why and how autopsies are carried out.  It also introduces the purpose and philosophy of the autopsy, and then the importance of circumstantial and medical history of the individual.  The book is, after the first chapter, set out in a step by step style of the procedure with numerous images, helping to detail the aim of the autopsy in medical and forensic contexts.  The book also details the different types of trauma that can be inflicted on the human body (blunt force, sharp, projectile, ballistic, etc.) and their telltale signs on flesh.  It is certainly not a book for the faint of heart, but it is informative of modern medical practice, of a procedure that has had a long and somewhat troubled history of acceptance but still remains a decisive procedure in forensic contexts.

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.


Although this is just a short selection of publications in the fields of osteology, biological anthropology and forensic anthropology, I hope it gives a quick taste of the many different branches that can make up studying and practicing human osteology.  A few of the publications highlighted above are reference books with chapters by various authors, or are technical manuals, highlighting the step by step techniques and why those methods are used.  A number of the publications above remain standard reference books, while others will of course date somewhat as new techniques and scientific advances come into play (perhaps most evidently in the forensic contexts).  However the core value of the publication will remain as evidence of the advancements in the above fields.

Writing this post has also reminded me that I must join the nearest university library as soon as I can…

Learn From One Another

This is just a snapshot of my own readings and a few of the publications have since been revised.  I’d be happy to hear what readers of this blog, and others like it, have read and recommend in the above fields.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!


The reason that CRC Press appear often in this selection is because the organisation is a recognised publisher of technical manuals in the science fields.

BABAO Online Forum Goes Live Today

9 Sep

The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology have produced an online forum for both members and members of the public to join and discuss topics relating to biological anthropology and osteoarchaeology.  The site goes live today and it is available to join for free.  BABAO, The organisation who encourage and promotes the study of biological anthropology in understanding humanity’s past and present, is also open to all and the association acts as an advocate to encourage discussion and guidance regarding new research, investigation, and the study of human and non-human primates.


The BABAO website header, highlighting both human and non-human primate remains. Image credit: BABAAO 2014.

This is an important step for BABAO as it is a direct attempt at reaching out to both individuals involved in the field and to members of the public, aiming to help educate and inform public debate and knowledge about these often specialist topics.  The site itself is split into different sections, with the majority of the focus on the main topics of research for BABAO members (such as forensic anthropology, human evolution, osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology).  However there are also areas (including media, publish or perish! and opportunities) where it is hoped that researchers and interested individuals can share information, tips and hints on how to prepare publications, apply for grant proposals, apply for jobs and also share favourite websites, etc.

So I heartily encourage readers of this blog to register, join up and get involved.  You can find me there under the moniker of this blog (thesebonesofmine) and I shall hope to see you there!

Further Information

  • BABAO’s online forum can be found here.  The BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards for the handling, storage and analysis of human remains from archaeological sites, can be found here.
  • The association’s 16th annual conference is taking place this week on the Friday 12th to Sunday 14th of September at the University of Durham.  More information on the four sessions running at the conference (Body and Society, BioAnth and Infectious Disease, New Biomolecuar Methods, and an Open Session) can be found here at the University of Durham’s website.

Book Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.

22 Jul

The British Museum in London is currently playing host to the Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition, from the 22nd of May to the 30th of November 2014, which focuses on the innovative use of non-destructive CT scanning to digitally unwrap and investigate eight individual mummies who spread the span of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese history.  It is a unique opportunity to explore the individual bodies and mummy styles, from a naturally preserved desiccated corpse from 3500 BC, right up to the late richly decorated and individualised Roman period mummies of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and the early Christian burials of Sudan from the 7th century AD.  Taylor & Antoine (2014) have produced a publication (priced at £19.99) in conjunction with the current British Museum exhibition and it is this that shall be reviewed here, rather than the exhibition itself.

But first we are going to quickly delve in the tantalising world of the mummy in archaeology.


The reader friendly yet relatively in-depth 192 page publication by Taylor and Antonio (2014) whets the appetite to learn more about Egyptian and Nile cultures. The front cover displays the painted case of  Tamut and the CT of her body, Tamut was a priestess from Thebes circa 900 BC.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Thinking About Mummies

The mummified remains of humans retain a unique position in the popular perception of past civilizations, offering as they do a face to face fleshed representation of the human past.   In the fleshed state the historic or prehistoric mummified individual helps to represent this version of the human past in an immediate biological projection, rather than through a secondary non-biological artefact, i.e. the individual is present.  This representation however works in a variety of ways.  The mummified person is, of course, the physical remains of an individual who had once lived, yet they also often actively represent the values of the culture that they came from (through the interpretation of the mortuary and funerary evidence and deposition contexts on a part of the archaeologist).  The modern person who views or interacts with the mummy also projects their own views and feelings onto the mummified person by, for instance, their thoughts of displaying the dead (Alberti et al. 2009).  Added to this is the fact that mummies are often seen as mysterious and filled with a silent potent dread, forever linked in the popular cultural mind with the supernatural wolf man or vampires of the Hammer horror films for instance, or remain linked with the so-called mythical curse of Tutankhamen.

In short, the mummified remains of human beings are often emotive physical remains.  Yet they remain popular with both members of the public in museums and with archaeologists and physical anthropologists in studying the remains of past individuals and populations.  The preservation of soft tissues (including skin) can often highlight cultural practices or pathological evidence that do not survive in the skeletal record or remain undocumented in the written record (Panzer et al. 2014, Taylor & Antoine 2014).

Mummification Briefly

It also must be noted here that there are generally two processes of mummification that take place with human remains which are (a) active mummification of remains as practiced by humans, where the body of the deceased is prepared and preserved before final funerary deposition, and (b) accidental mummification, when the body is preserved through the luck of the burial environment.  Examples of natural preservation include the fascinating Pazyryk kurgan burials in the Altai, who have some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoos, and the western European bog bodies of the Iron Age, whose soft tissues are preserved in acidic bog and marsh environments.

The word mummy is itself a broad term, encompassing not just the classically bandaged Egyptian mummies but also the high altitude mummy bundles of the Inca, the Altai burials, and Tarim mummies of China, amongst many other known examples across the world.  We think of these exotic locations when we think of mummies, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the mummification of composite bodies (elements of individuals pieced together to form one and left above ground) took place during the British Bronze Age at a variety of locations (Parker-Pearson et al. 2005), and it may possibly have been a widespread mortuary phenomenon.  The work by Parker-Pearson and others (2005) is throwing light onto a practice that has, so far, been relatively invisible in places that do not have a favorable climate or burial conditions to preserve mummified individuals intact.  The purposeful mummification of the body then was a widely practiced process in both prehistoric and prehistoric contexts, practiced for a variety of reasons but it is often linked with the values held of an afterlife, of keeping the body as whole, lifelike and as safe as possible from decomposition (Alberti et al. 2009).

Many mummies from ancient (and not so ancient) Egyptian contexts were often used in corpse medicine (and as paint) in the late European medieval period and many more were excavated, transported and unwrapped in the 17th and 18th centuries during the gradual development of scientific inquiry.  It was in the 19th century that, in Europe, the unwrappings of mummies in both public and private contexts took off, as archaeological expeditions uncovered further named individuals at various sites and recordings were made of the anatomical aspects of the individuals that were unwrapped and dissected (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 17).  It should be noted however that many surviving mummies in collections from this period often have little to no documented provenance or contextual information regarding their find location and often placed in sarcophagi that are not from the same period (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 155).

Two important milestones in Egyptology stand out from this period.  The first was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic text and thus the history of Egypt, which sent the European public into a tailspin of ancient Egyptian frenzy allowing many museums to build up substantial collections which were not always legally acquired.  The second was the advancement of medical science and the discovery and invention of the X-ray in 1890.  Mummy unwrappings continued but have become rare in recent decades, carried out only when there is a real need to and often only by a multidisciplinary team.  It is the use of X-rays and the development of CT scanning in the 1970’s (or CAT scan, computerized axial tomography) that has allowed non-invasive exploration of fragile mummies to produce 3D models that has really taken off, alongside the development of non-invasive biogeochemical sampling of mummy wrapping materials and mortuary substances (Panzer et al. 2014, Parker-Pearson et al. 2005).

Regardless of this wealth of knowledge and investigation, the ancient Egyptians themselves never fully documented the process of mummification in any records that have survived.  New techniques and on-going investigations are pushing back the boundary in understanding the origin and context of mummification however, as Jones et al. (2014) highlight in recent research in which the advent of purposeful Egyptian period mummification has been pushed back to over a thousands years before previously thought through study of the linen wrappings and resins used during the preservation process.  As Fletcher & Buckley (in Vogels 2013) highlight the fact that mummies are often still misunderstood and little studied in the archaeological record and it is, they state, very possible that mummies thought to be naturally preserved may well have been embalmed or treated on purpose for the preservation of the body, particularly in South American contexts.

Ancient Lives

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries publication aims to highlight just what can be found using the latest in digital imaging technology on a selection of 8 human mummies from along the River Nile area.  The British Museum archive holds a total of 120 mummified individuals altogether, collected stage by stage since the museums foundation in the 1750’s, whilst the majority of the mummies highlighted in this publication were collected in the 19th century (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 13).  The period of intentional mummification by the Ancient Egyptians probably took place around the 2nd to 4th dynasties (3000 BC) right up until the Roman period of the fourth century AD.  The individuals under consideration span the Predynastic period (5500-3100 BC) right up until the Medieval period of the 7th century AD, a clever chronological approach in understanding the longitudinal aspects of mummification in ancient Egypt and northern Sudan.  The publication mixes the naturally mummified and the purposefully mummified, with the naturally preserved bodies of Gebelein Man B (3500 BC) from the Predynastic period and the anonymous 7th century AD tattooed medieval christian woman from Sudan both book-ending the publication.

If you picture mummies you see Tutankhamen, his ornate golden mask adorning his young body.  It may be a tired paradigm of Egyptian archaeology but this publication makes it clear that there was much more going on with regards to mortuary behaviour and funerary styles than is normally appreciated along the banks of the River Nile (Meyers 2014).  Thus the cross-section of individuals studied here spans not just a wide chronological time but also includes male and female adults and juveniles of different ages.  Alongside this the individual all come from different social groups and communities from villages, great temples and cities along the spread of the River Nile.  What this publication highlights then is the both the great variety in mortuary behaviour within the practice of mummification, but also the individual stories of the persons under study (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 2).

The 8 individuals under study, in publication order, are:

1. Gebelein Man B (Male, adult, Gebelein, c.3500 BC).

2. Unknown Man from Thebes (Male, middle/older adult 35 years and above, Thebes, c.600 BC).

3. Tamut (Female, adult, Thebes, c.900 BC).

4. Padiamenet (Male, middle adult 35-50 years, Thebes, c.700 BC).

5. Tjayasetimu (Female, juvenile 7 ± 3 years, Thebes or Fayum area, c.800 BC).

6. Roman Period Male (Male, adult, Thebes, 1st to 3rd century AD).

7. Roman Period Juvenile (Male, 2 years ± 9 months, location unknown, c. AD 40-60).

8. Christian Woman from Sudan (Female, young adult 20-35, Fourth Cataract Sudan, c. AD 655-775).

Although I will not discuss each and every individual above as it really is worth reading the book or visiting the exhibition if you can, I will highlight the Roman Period Male and Gebelein Man B as these are two mummies that really caught my attention.  They also represent two different approaches in the mortuary and funerary treatment of the individual and the society that they came from.  The Roman period male, below, is a particularly unique individual, stylized heavily to capture what the person looked like during his lifetime.


The painted face of an unusual Roman period mummy dating from the c.1st to 3rd century AD. The adult male individual has several interesting features such as individually wrapped toes and fingers, padded thighs and breast area. It is likely that this is to represent the man as he was during life, possibly obese. The black bands on his cheek are a standard stylistic representation of a beard. Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Before the mummy had been CT scanned it was assumed for many years that the individual was a female due to the nature of the packing of the thighs and breast area.  Analysis of the skeleton highlighted that he was in fact an adult male, who had a lot of unusual dental wear by the time he died.  His incisors, canines and premolars showed heavy wear yet the molars have hardly any, although many of his molars had been lost ante-mortem.  This is suggestive of a change in the way this individual ate, using his front teeth as molars to crush and grind his food (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 144).  The way that this individual has been represented as a living individual on the front of his wrappings is a standard of the Roman period mummification, although many mummies also have encaustic life-like portraits painted on wood, often incorporated onto the bandages and packing of the mummy (the examples such as the Fayum portraits are well-known).

New Discoveries

It becomes evident quite quickly when reading the publication just how important the use of non-invasive scanning and imaging techniques are in the study of mummified individuals.  Not only are the bodies themselves not disturbed but they can be digitally stripped back layer by layer, from the bandages to the bone to unveil the person underneath as last seen by the embalmers and mortuary workers who prepared the body and decorated it.  As such the method highlights not just the soft tissue and skeletal anatomy but also the fabrics, packing and artefacts used and located on and within the mummy.

It can also highlight ante-mortem and post-mortem damage to the mummified remains, as well as the mistakes of the embalmer.  Padiamenet’s body, an adult male temple door-keeper from the 25th dynasty (c.700 BC), displays evidence that his head had become detached from his body during mummification.  The scanning of his body highlighted two poles inserted into the chest are used to support the head, with evidence of the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae remaining slightly misaligned (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 105).  Alongside this his coffin had to be extended, with linen wrap covering his protruding feet.  Cartonnage cases and coffins were often mass manufactured, only personalised as and when the individual died.

One of my personal favourites of the mummies investigated here is the naturally mummified body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male who died around 3500 BC in the Predynastic period.  One of 6 natural mummies in the British Museum collection, Gebelein Man B  was buried in a cemetery in Upper Egypt dating to the middle Predynastic period and lived in an era before Egyptian unification when chiefdom’s ruled the area.  The area in which he was buried suggests that Gebelein was a relatively important local settlement who practiced mixed subsistence of agriculture (cattle, sheep, and goats) with the fishing, fowling and collecting of wild fruits and berries (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 36).  The burial site of Gebelein Man B have provided the only evidence, or expression, for religious belief as the body was placed in a formal grave, with evidence for the crouched body having been placed between mats and probable deposited with offerings which have subsequently been removed by grave robbers (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 38).

gebelein man b skelly

The skeleton and body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male and a natural mummification from c.3500 BC.  Notice the semi-circular unknown artefact towards the bottom of his torso and the fracture of the right femur and ribs, likely due to post-mortem movement or excavation.  Fractures tend to break in a characteristic way when the person is alive (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 31).  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Gebelein Man B lived during a period of change in which the introduction of writing was eventually introduced, but no name was recorded for any resident of Gebelein, thus this individual, unlike many in the book, remains nameless.  His body is remarkably preserved for a body that has survived for over 5500 years, with his beard, nails and hair still in evidence.  The teeth are lightly worn, the presence of fusion lines in the long bones and the pelvis (pubic symphysis) all highlight that he was in his early twenties when he died (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 33).

Although the majority of the soft tissues have been preserved, the major organs have shrunk due to the desiccation process which must have been rapid to allow for such extensive preserve ration of his body.  When mummification became intensely practiced in the Dynastic period of Egyptian and northern Sudanese history the organs were often removed, preserved and kept in canopic jars separate to the body, so the preservation in-situ of Gebelein Man B’s viscera may offer a rare chance to sample human health during this period.  Perhaps most  interestingly is the preservation of foodstuffs in both the stomach and the colon, which could allow analysis of the foods consumed during Gebelein Man B’s lifetime.

gebelein man b skelly belly

Gebelein Man B (c.3500 BC) stripped back from the above image to reveal the soft tissues (in blue) still present in his cranium and torso.  The tissue highlighted in his pelvis is likely to be remains of his last meal.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Importantly Taylor & Antoine (2014: 39) highlight that whilst Gebelein Man B was a natural mummification, it should not be noted as a precursor to the artificial mummification that was practiced later.  Although re-cutting into a graveyard and noticing the preserved burials may have influenced generations of the population, at all times during the prehistory and historical span of this book people of lower status were buried in simple pits.  The long mortuary and  funerary rites involved in depositing the dead alongside deeper graves to protect bodies from grave robbing may have been two processes that influence the uptake in artificial mummification of individuals from around 3000 BC onwards.

The book does a fantastic job at introducing the importance of mummification to the ancient Egyptian and north Sudan cultures.  Today it may seem unusual, and at odds with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of depositing a body in the ground as soon as possible mentality, that this was a period of time where it was important that the body was prepared properly, over long periods of time, to maintain the individual identity of the deceased (Vogels 2013: 11). Yet it is an endlessly fascinating period of time that has captured the heart of many archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the general public.  Ancient Lives, new Discoveries will, no doubt, do the same.


As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if there was some variation within the same period for at least some of these individuals highlighted here.  It was a question that went unanswered in this publication, but I did feel that the book highlighted that the archaeology of mummification had much more to offer, especially in the realm of non-invasive imaging.  As such the publication is an invigorating read, wrote in a straightforward and easy to read manner that doesn’t skip on explaining the techniques used in the approach to understand the individual mummies skeletal biology, artefacts found with the bodies, and burial or deposition context of the individual.

This contextualisation of the individual is a smart approach in being able to engage an audience to understand that these mummies are individuals with their own life history.  I did feel that perhaps a larger contextual approach on funerary and burials rites could perhaps elucidate further information on a general population scale, however this was a minor niggle.  I was impressed at the use of the clear and precise terminology and the overall style of the publication.  The images in particular are clearly and precisely presented, and it is a joy to study the cross sections throughout the book, offering as they do, an unparalleled view of the ancient mummies.

It is wrong, though, to think that the mummification of human remains is something that was done purely in the past.  Recent research led, in part, by Buckley & Fletcher (2013: 12) has led to the actual mummification of a recently deceased person to explore the actual embalming chemicals and methodology used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body.  Alan, who donated his body to archaeological science, has already provided a wealth of knowledge on the actual mortuary process of embalming a human body the ancient Egyptian way by highlighting that a natron salt bath was the most effective way to preserve a body during the act of mummification (Marchant 2011).  Yet there are still many mysteries sounding the actual step by step method and role of mummification in the cultures of ancient Egypt and northern Sudan but this publication, and the exhibition at the British Museum, go some way to (digitally) unwrap the secrets that they hold.


I thank Hattie Clarke of the British Museum Press for providing the images for this post and for quickly answering  any questions that I had.  I also thank Loretta Kilroe for providing helpful comments on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan.


A copy of the British Museum publication Ancient Lives, New Discoveries was provided for the author to review.  No monetary transaction took place.

Further Information

  • The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries British Museum exhibition in London, England, is now open to the public until the 30th November 2014 with ticket prices at £10.00 for adults, £8.00 for students and children going free (other discounts are available).  Learn more about the 8 individual mummies at the British Museum website here.
  • An enlightening interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley, who are both a part of the York Mummy Group, on mummification and the Mummifying Alan project can be found here at The Post Hole journal.
  • The journal Papers in Anthropology, issued under the European Anthropological Association, have a new open access special edition out (Vol. 23 (1) 2014) which focuses exclusively on mummy studies and mummification.  Click the title above to learn more.
  • Head over to Loretta Kilroe’s blog, Cake and Ceramics, here to learn more about the daily life of an Egyptologist and to learn about her other projects on the go.


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Jones, J., Higham, T. F. G., Oldfield, R., O’Connor, T. P. & Buckley, S.A. 2014. Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608. (Open Access).

Marchant, J. 2011. Egyptian Mummification Method Resurrected in the UK. New Scientist. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Meyers, K. 2014. Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look Into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians.  Bones Don’t lie. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Panzer,  S., Peschel, O., Haas-Gebhard, B., Bachmeier, B. E., Pusch, C. M. & Nerlich, A. G. 2014. Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of  a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Diseas and Ritual Homicide. PLoS One. (2): e89528. (Open Access).

Parker-Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Craig, O., Marshall, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Henery, C., Collins, M., Cook, G., Craig, G., Evans, J., Hiller, J., Montgomery, J., Schwenninger, J-L., Taylor, G. & Wess, T. 2005. Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity. 79 (305): 529-546.

Taylor, J. H. & Antoine, D. 2014. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.  London: The British Museum Press.

Vogels, R. 2013. Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings – An Interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen BuckleyThe Post Hole. Special Edition. 1-16. (Open Access).