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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.

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.

A Stone to Throw II: Upcoming Archaeology Conferences

7 Apr

A few dates for the diary as this year sees some pretty exciting archaeology and bioarchaeology themed conferences rolling towards us in the next four months of 2014 or so.  Conferences are fantastic places to learn about new techniques or research approaches in archaeology.  It can also be a thrill watching famed archaeologists and professors speak in the flesh about topics which they are passionate about.  Conferences, depending on their target audience, can sometimes be open to the public and members of academia alike, but they can also vary widely in cost depending on their location, size and prestige.


Without further ado here are a few conferences that have peaked my interest and some that I hope to attend myself (although Istanbul may have to be missed due to an unfortunate clash with BABAO):

Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014, Wath-Upon-Dearne

The community focused Elmet Archaeology group, who were recently mentioned here as a part of an interview with their osteoarchaeologist Lauren McIntyre, are hosting their annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day in Wath-Upon-Dearne, South Yorkshire, on Saturday the 31st of May.  Open to the members of the public and archaeologists alike, the day long conference costs £18 (£14 unwaged) to attend and boasts a host of speakers on a variety of topics.  The full list of speakers has yet to be announced but so far includes British archaeological stalwarts such as David Connolly of BAJR fame, Prof Joan Fletcher of the University of York and a range of speakers from archaeological units across the country.  There will also be a number of stalls on the day, including information booths on how to illustrate archaeology style by Kate Adelade, Dearne Valley Archaeology Group and a stall with Jenny Crangle detailing the medieval Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project (which has been previously discussed on this blog).   

Exploring Changing Human Beliefs About Death, Mortality and the Human Body, Invisible Dead Project Conference, Durham

The University of Durham is playing host to the Invisible Dead Project conference from Friday 6th of to the Sunday the 8th of June.  The conference has two lectures on the Friday and Saturday nights which are open to the public and two full days of talks for students and academics during the Saturday and Sunday daytime.  The conference is, quite wonderfully, completely free to attend.  The ongoing Invisible Dead Project is a large-scale international collaboration aimed at studying the prehistoric and historic attitudes to death and burial of Britain and the Levant areas.  Information and details of sites under study can be found here at the University of Durham webpage.

The conference welcomes anthropologists, archaeologists and members of the public interested in death and  human remains in prehistory and up contemporary society to attend.  The first public speaker is Prof. Peter Pfälzner, from the University of Tübingen, explaining work carried out on long-term royal funerary processes at Qatna, Syria, on Friday night (6.30pm), whilst Prof Mike Parker Pearson discusses problems and perspectives in funerary archaeology on the Saturday night (6.30pm).  If you are interested in attending the conference forms should be completed before the 30th of April.

British association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists, Durham

The British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology are holding their annual conference at the University of Durham in September, from Friday 12th to the Sunday 14th.  The three-day conference will feature a broad range of presentations, talks and posters on the great range and wealth of  osteoarchaeology in Britain and beyond.  The call for papers has just been announced and is open until the 9th of June.  Last year’s conference program can be found here.  Although details have not been released just yet of the costs of attending the conference, it is likely that it will upwards of £140 to attend (based on 2013 BABAO member rates).  The information concerning the 4 sessions has just been released and are based around the following clusters:

1) The body and society: past perspectives on the present

2) Biological anthropology and infectious disease: new developments in understanding from bioarchaeology, palaeoanthropology, primatology, and archaeozoology

3) New developments in biomolecular methods

4) Open session

Details on the key-note speakers for each session can be found here, as can further information on conference guidelines for following abstract guidelines and submission dates.  The BABAO conference is the foundation stone of conferences in the UK osteology calendar as it really does represent the best in current research in the UK and beyond.  Although I have yet to attend one (due to costs), I have high hopes of attending this year’s event in the lovely historic (and local to me) city of Durham.

European Association of Archaeologists, Istanbul

The European Association for Archaeologists host their conference in September, from the Wednesday the 10th to the Sunday the 14th, in Istanbul, Turkey.  The call for papers and posters has now closed, but they did receive a very healthy 2400 submissions in total.  The broad topics of discussion for the 2014 session are categorised into 6 different focus areas including:

1) Connecting seas: across the borders

2) Managing archaeological heritage: past and present

3) Ancient technologies in social context

4) Environment and subsistence: the geosphere, ecosphere and human interaction

5) Times of change: collapse and transformative impulses

6) Retrieving and interpreting the archaeology record

The fees for attending the EAA conference ranges in price from €40 to €180 dependent on category of the applicant (see here for the full extensive list, you are enrolled as a member of the EAA on purchase of conference tickets), but all are welcome to join the conference.  It promises to be an interesting conference with the attendance of some of the most important archaeologists in Europe discussing a wide variety of topics, including a number of speakers discussing human osteology related topics.  Istanbul is also a fantastic place to host a conference positioned as it is between the crossing of the West into the East and vice versa, and boasting a city full of heritage, archaeology and art.

Is Gender Still Relevant? University of Bradford

The British Academy and the University of Bradford are holding a two day event on the question of whether gender is still relevant.  The mini conference runs from Wednesday the 17th to the Thursday the 18th of September and it is free to attend.  Guest speakers include Professor Rosemary Joyce from the University of California and Dr Roberta Gilchrist from the University of Reading, who will discussing sex and gender dichotomies in archaeology.  You can find out more information here and, as far as I am aware, there is still time to submit abstracts for the conference.

No doubt there will be more archaeology and osteology based conferences going on so please feel free to leave a comment below.

Bone Benefits of 3D Printing

24 Mar

Recently there has been some extraordinarily interesting articles in the press on the value of 3D printing in surgical procedures.  In particular the United Kingdom seems to be leading the way in producing and using 3D printed implants for use in reconstructive surgeries, as recent articles in the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and The Independent publications highlight.

Mr Craig Gerrand, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in an NHS hospital in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, recently announced the success of producing and fitting half of a 3D printed titanium hip into an unnamed patient who was suffering from chondrosarcoma.  Chondrosarcoma is a cancer of the cartilage cells and typically tends to affect the axial skeleton.  In this case the unnamed patient suffered severe damage to one half of his hip due to the effect of the destructive cancer.  In an effort to stop the spread of the cancer, which rarely responds to radiotherapy or chemotherapy, the surgeon was forced to remove half of the patient’s hip (termed an hemipelvectomy, which can be external or internal dependent on if the leg is to be amputated as well).

Before this, however, Mr Gerrand was able to construct and print a 3D titanium half model of the patient’s  hip which, along with the added attachment of a hip socket replacement, he was then able to implant into the patient following the removal of the chondrosarcoma affected bone.  The fake hip was based on scans and x-rays of the patient’s own hip for anatomical reasons and was fully produced using a 3D printer.  The printer used lasers to fuse together titanium powder, which slowly built up a model of the hip layer by layer.  The fake hip was then coated in a mineral into which the remaining bone in the patient’s healthy hip could fuse with, providing long-term stability during recovery and mobility.  Although the news articles on the case were only recently produced, the actual surgery itself was carried out over 3 years ago.  Wonderfully the patient continues to manage to walk with mobility aids, something that would be unthinkable if the surgeon had not been able to print and implant the titanium hip.

In other news recently, as reported by the BBC, the Welsh victim of a vicious motorcycle accident was able to benefit from the 3D printing of custom parts for use in maxillofacial reconstruction.  The use of 3D printing was used at each stage of the procedure, including the planning of the surgery and the reconstruction itself, by using titanium parts to stabilise or replace parts of the patient’s own facial bones.

Following the motorcycle accident, which severely damaged both of the patient’s zygomatic bones as well as sustaining damage to the maxilla, frontal and nasal bones, the patient’s face was reconstructed in a series of operations.  To achieve the aim of improving the patient’s face to almost pre-accident standards the surgeons scanned the skull of the individual using a CT scanner and printed the results using a 3D printer, the results of which helped to produce a symmetrical model of his skull to help plan the surgery in detail.  By using cutting guides and by being able to measure the facial skeletal anatomy directly, they managed to print titanium plates to match the symmetry of the patient’s face originally, and likely minimised the time the patient spent under anesthetic.  In the article the patient, from the city of Cardiff in Wales, movingly states how he now looks as he did before the motorcycle accident, adding that he was able to go out in public once again following the reconstructive surgery.


A model example of how the surgeons helped plan the surgery to improve the motorcycle accident man’s face with 3D printed titanium implants. The image shows the left zygomatic arch with the titanium implants in white against the model of the cranium. (Image credit: The BBC 2014).

The two innovative procedures above are fine examples of the value of integrating the latest technology into the operating theatre, but they also highlight some themes of the body and surgical intervention that interest me.  The benefits of being able to 3D print specific and specially made parts offer a ‘continuation’ for the patient of their own bodies, even with the distinct disconnect (and often intrusive procedures) between the effect of the trauma or disease process and the reconstructive attempts at re-structuring the body, as highlighted in the above orthopaedic cases.

3D printing is a fast-moving technology in the medical world, where even the possibility of being able to bioprint human organs and tissue is fast becoming a possibility for the future.  Perhaps most significantly it offers the option for the patient to use their own bodies (or, more specifically, their cells) to help cultivate a ‘second chance’ organ or tissue in the lab using artificial scaffolds to grow the tissue needed.  To a small degree this has already been carried out with certain tissues, but further work is needed to be able to bioprint human organs properly.  But back to the use of 3D printing in orthopaedic surgery.

Reconstructive orthopaedic surgery generally aims to improve the quality of life for the individual through physical manipulation and internal or external fixation of an implant onto, or into, the bone directly.  The benefits of this are not just anatomical but often also psychological, perhaps more so in maxillofacial procedures.  The patient may feel that their appearance has improved dramatically, or that they have been made to look more normal.  This can increase the positive social perception of the patient themselves and boost self-confidence.  Of course there are always risks associated with reconstructive orthopaedic surgery, the first and foremost being the fact that more damage may occur as a result of the often intrusive procedures, particularly the risk of implant fatigue and possibility of macro/micro fracture of surrounding bone material.

Internal and external fixations also often run the risk of infection, more so when there is the risk of repeated surgical interventions.  Internal fixation (such as intramedullary rodding) has the possibility of deep bone infection, whilst external fixation (such as the use of the Ilizarov frame) often results in small localised infections.  Nevertheless the risk of infection by implant is often controlled for by using clean surgical rooms, sterilised medical equipment and the infusion of antibiotics during and post-surgery.  Further to this, antibiotic laden cement is also often used during the surgical fixation of an implant as an added protector against infection through the introduction of foreign bodies.

I am also interested in the after effects of surgery in the perception of the self.  Titanium implant parts are typically manufactured for general use, although there is a dizzying variety of screws, plates and rods available to the orthopaedic surgeon.   Of course they are also shaped and made to fit the patient to a certain degree.  Titanium is a fairly hefty metal, with the patient often being able to tell that something heavy has been implanted into the body upon awakening from surgery.  It also often hammered or screwed into the bone, sometimes causing the bone to fracture or microfracture during the process, or afterwards as the patient starts to weightbear.  (As a side note orthopaedic surgeons are often built like rugby players because of the demanding physical aspect of orthopaedic surgery).

The new generation of 3D printed parts are often made of different materials than purely consisting of titanium.  Importantly there is the option to help improve the post surgical integration of existing bone and ceramic implants (such as hip replacements, which often use ceramic femoral heads) through the ability to print intricate designs to help meld with bone, and the ability to seed the ceramic scaffolds with the patients own cultured cells to promote  healthy bone growth (Seitz et al. 2005).  This is purely speculation and conjecture, but I wonder if the newer materials used, are of a much lighter material than titanium and are, as a result, less intrusive to the person undergoing the surgery?

What the 3D printing of implants offer is the opportunity to make identical and specifically made models of the  patient for their own use (Fedorovich et al. 2011), by either basing the custom build on an existing bone of the patient or by specifically making a part to improve what has either been lost to a disease process or a traumatic incident, to name the two main causes for orthopaedic reconstructive surgery.  There are also opportunities to help promote wound healing and prevent infection during and post-surgery (Lee et al. 2012), a step that is needed considering the rise of drug resistant germs, the general decline in pharmaceutical companies producing new antibiotics, and the widespread misuse of antibiotics in general (Mayo Clinic release).  3D printing then, I believe, is an important step in advancing and improving the techniques, approaches and materials used in orthopaedic surgery.

Learn More

  • Watch Ben Garrod’s Secrets of Bones BBC TV series to learn more about just how wonderful the skeleton is.  Learn more about the remarkable 3D print of his skull here.
  • Kristina Killgrove, over at Powered by Osteons, has a series of posts on her attempts to integrate 3D printing with teaching human osteology, check it out here.
  • The frankly amazing news of the Netherlands surgeons who were able to produce a 3D model of a patient’s cranium which was then successfully implanted can be found here, although there has been a lack of evidence for this procedure in other mainstream or medical publications.


Fedorovich, N. E., Alblas, J., Hennink, W. E., Oner, F. C. & Dhert, W. J. A. 2011. Organ Printing: The Future of Bone Regeneration? Trends in Biotechnology29 (12): 601-606.

Lee, J-H., Gu, Y. Wang, H. & Lee, W. Y. 2012. Microfluidic 3D Bone Tissue model for High-Throughput Evaluation of Wound-Healing and Infection-Preventing Biomaterials. Biomaterials. 33 (4): 999-1006.

Seitz, H., Rieder, W., Irsen, S., Leukers, B. & Tille, C. 2005. Three-Dimensional Printing of Porous Ceramic Scaffolds for Bone Tissue Engineering. Journal of Biomedical Materials Research Part B: Applied Biomaterials. 74B (2): 782-788.

‘Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton’ by Clark Spencer Larsen

13 Jan

For me there are two key books that are needed in the human osteologist’s  personal library for reference that highlight the value of the trade (1).  The first one, perhaps unsurprisingly, is White & Folkens 2005 book The Human Bone Manual.  It is a book that I’ve mentioned plenty of times here, and it is one that remains the combined field/laboratory bible for identifying fragments and individual bones of the human skeletal system.  Although the authors, along with Michael T. Black, released a 3rd edition of the Human Osteology book in 2011 (a heavier reverential tome with input on palaeontology and forensics), the human bone manual itself remains the best easy-to-transport identification book on the market today – a beautifully realised manual which is hardy and ready for the field and the lab, for the under-graduates and the professionals alike.

The second book for me however highlights the true wealth that knowledge of human osteology can unlock in the archaeological record, especially when interpreting past human behaviour from a number of different cultures in an international context.  It is, of course, Clark Spencer Larsen’s 1997 book Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton (2) (published as part of the Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology series).  Illuminating in its archaeological scope and international context, the book is itself a marvel and a testament to the great breadth and depth of the bioarchaeological work that has been carried out as a whole in the discipline.  If there is a single book that I could recommend to an audience who is interested in learning about bioarchaeology work and the value of interpreting the skeletal record that it would be this comprehensive book.


Weighing in at 461 pages, Larsen’s book will ground the reader in the scientific approaches used to ascertain behaviour from the human skeleton in the archaeological record (Image credit: source).

Clark Spencer Larsen is incredibly well positioned to have produced such a tome as he has with this book.  Currently a Distinguished Professor of Social and Behaviour Sciences at the department of anthropology at the Ohio State University, Larsen has focused his diverse skills as a researcher in producing a very fine synthesis of the value of bioarchaeology.  In particular by focusing on human behaviour, as can be inferred from human skeletal material, Larsen highlights the very real and integral worth of the study of human osteology and bioarchaeology in the wider historical context.

The book is therefore split into discrete chapters that deal with specific clusters in the osteological record, each with their own introduction, over 461 pages.  Topics include but are not limited to: injury or violent death, activity patterns, stress and deprivation markers during growth, infectious pathogens, isotope and chemical signatures in bone.  There is also extensive discussions on skeletal variations in populations.  It is, to put it simply, an invigorating, engaging and a wide-ranging read.  Larsen confidently sets out his view that skeletal remains have so much to offer in understanding the past lifestyles and behaviours of cultures, populations and individuals from the archaeological record.  The diagrams are often clean and easy to read, although some of the black and white photographs suffer from a loss of clarity in my paperback version of the 1999 reprint.

Larsen includes a reflective final chapter on the changes and challenges in bioarchaeology, noting the differences used in data recording standards, highlighting problems of sample representation and raising issues involved in cultural patrimony.  In particular he highlights the osteological paradox in the inference of health and lifestyle, noting that continued advances in bioarchaeology must always go hand in hand with diligence on a part of the researcher in understanding the very real and necessary limitations of the data set (Larsen 1999: 337).  He ends, somewhat emphatically, with the statement that “the chance is now at hand for sharing this information widely, especially regarding the large and crucial part that human biology and bioarchaeology play in understanding the history of the human condition” (Larsen 1999: 342).

There are however a few caveats I would add to anyone reading this rather wonderful book.

It should be noted here that the book itself is a synthesis of the bioarchaeological record as it stood in 1997, and as such it is assumed that the reader is already relatively cognizant of the terminology used when discussing the human skeletal system and the wider application of human osteology in archaeological remains.  Having said that Larsen does provide a straightforward introduction to both the book and human skeletal biology in the first chapter.  Personally I approached this book after first reading the White and Folkens (2005) human bone manual and Mays (1999) book on the use of human remains in archaeology when I realised during my undergraduate degree that I wanted to specialise in this area of research.

For those that are unused to reading academic textbooks there could also be a jarring issue with the sheer amount of references used throughout the text.  The referencing system used here (as in most archaeological departments, journals and books) is the Harvard system, where the author(s) and year of publication are stated within the sentence itself.  As such this can lead to fragmented and broken sentences that can potentially be tough to digest on a first read.  The upshot of this, and I would argue that it is a big one, is that half of the page is not taken up with footnotes.  Further to this there is an incredible bibliography at the end of the book detailing each of the articles cited within the main text – it is a veritable goldmine for researchers and interested readers who went to delve further into the techniques used in bioarchaeology.

Larsen’s book is still a first edition that has not been updated since the original publication date of 1997, thus the reader should be aware that there have been marked advances in certain fields in bioarchaeology.  This is perhaps most deftly illustrated in the discussion of chemical and genetic markers, which are commonly used in bioarchaeology, specifically the changes in the way stable light isotopes are used and the quite incredible advances in understanding and sequencing ancient DNA from archaeological bone (Killgrove 2013).  There will likely be other instances where the information provided may now be out of date within the purview of the current scientific literature.  I have heard that Larsen is producing a second up to date edition of ‘Bioarchaeology’ (I would readily buy a second edition as soon as it was published), but I have heard no firm knowledge of this as of yet.  I have also had the pleasure of watching Larsen talk at a conference in Wales that I attended a few years ago on the topic of the Neolithic period and the lifestyle change from hunter-gathering to farming, and I remain upbeat to read more of his prestigious work.

Although I have highlighted a few caveats to be aware of when reading this book I would recommend it without doubt; it is only one of the few bioarchaeological books out there that attempts to take in the whole glorious sweep of bioarchaeological knowledge for a general and interested audience, detailing where the field is heading and why we, as practitioners, must insist on the importance of studying the human skeleton in the archaeological record.


(1) It should also be noted here that there are human osteological standards available (Schwartz 2006, Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994) but they are not discussed here.

(2) Please note that this book is not a standard for interpreting and studying skeletal material first hand, but rather a book that demonstrates the breadth of bioarchaeological knowledge and discusses some of the approaches used.


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

Killgrove K. 2013. Bioarchaeology. In Oxford Bibliographies Online – Anthropology. (ed.) Jackson, J.L. Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

Schwartz, J. H. 2007. Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

aRNA: A Helpful Friend In Palaeopathology?

20 Dec

It is another quick post from me highlighting another researcher’s work but it is one well worth reading!  Over at So Much Science, So Little Time researcher Dr Kristin Harper has highlighted an intriguing possibility on the direction for the future of palaeopathology.

What is aRNA?

Harper’s post highlights the possible value of aRNA ( ancient Ribonucleic acid) in the investigation of viruses (think influenza and coronaviruses such as SARS) in past human populations in her post on the ability of researchers being able to obtain aRNA samples from 700 year old maize samples.  RNA performs a variety of important functions in the coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes; essentially RNA acts as the messenger which carries instructions from DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) for controlling the synthesis of proteins in living cells.  DNA itself is the molecule that encodes the genetic instructions that are used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms (including many viruses) however, unlike DNA, RNA is composed of shorter single strands of nucleic acids.  This has made it particularly vulnerable to degradation in archaeological contexts.

The best place to search for evidence of aRNA strands in the human skeleton in an archaeological context would be in the dental pulp cavity, specially the molar teeth.  This seems to be the place where diagenesis  has the least effect on the human skeleton due to both the tough enamel coating found in human teeth and the tooth sockets themselves being fairly protected inside the mandible and maxilla, which is where cortical bone is often dense due to the biomechanics of mastication (Larsen 1997).

I should point out here that the area of genetics is not my specialty but it is an area of inherent interest for me, especially in its applications to palaeoanthropology and palaeopathology.

Why Could This Be Important?

The foundations of palaeopathology are built on the observed changes in human skeletal material and palaeopathology itself often specifically focuses on markers of stress or trauma that can be found in the macro or micro skeletal anatomy.  As a consequence of this many diseases (and indeed traumas) are ‘invisible’ in the archaeological record as they leave no marker of note on the skeleton itself.  The diseases and syndromes that do leave a lesion (which can include blastic and/or lytic lesions) are often said to leave pathognomonic lesions that are, at a basic level, an indicator of the disease or infection processes behind the bone change.

So, as you can imagine, quite often in human osteology we have a ‘healthy’ skeleton of an individual that has died at such and such an age but with no obvious cause of death.  In essence we have the osteological paradox, where those who do contract a disease and die shortly afterwards leave no evidence of bone lesions (or trace of the cause of death) in comparison to individuals who do have severe pathological bone changes but have evidently lived long enough for the disease itself to alter the skeletal architecture; it is, in short, the question of discerning the health of a past population (Larsen 1997: 336).  This is a simplified version of the osteological paradox, a discussion outlining the paradox and it’s full implications and discussion points can be found in Woods et al.’s (1992) article (available online here).

This can have serious effects on our estimates of disease prevalence in history and prehistory, especially in the cases of viruses as they can often kill quickly and leave no skeletal marker.  However because they are cells that were once alive they do leave behind evidence of traces of aRNA.  So any new methodology of being able to extrapolate aRNA of past infections from human skeletal material is welcome as this could potentially open up new insights into past populations and population dynamics.

Further Information


Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woods, J. W., Milner, G. R., Harpending, H, C. & Weiss, K. M. 1992. The Osteological Paradox: Problems of Inferring Prehistoric Health from Skeletal Samples. Current Anthropology. 33 (4): 343-370. (Open Access).

Skeletal Series 11: The Human Foot

4 Sep

The human foot is as distinctive and as complex as the human hand (D’Août et al.  2010).  The foot, or Pes, forms the distal terminus of the leg.  It helps to perform the two basic important functions of shock absorption and propulsion during bipedal locomotion, both of which require a high degree of stability.  The foot bones are the serial homologs of the hand bones an each foot individually is comprised of 26  individual skeletal elements as opposed to the hand’s 27  individual skeletal elements, indicative of the differing evolutionary roles of both limbs with the digits undergoing reduction and modification in mammals (White & Folkens 2005: 225).

As White & Folkens (2005: 292) note, the ‘human foot has changed dramatically during its evolution from a grasping organ to a structure adapted to bipedal locomotion’, where ‘mobility, flexibility and grasping ability has been lost’.  As humans are bipedal walkers the feet must take the full weight of the body during locomotion and this is reflected in hard and soft tissue anatomy (D’Août et al. 2008, D’Août et al. 2010, Gosling et al. 2008, Jarmey 2003).  The diagram below demonstrates the robust and compact nature of the pes elements.


The human foot, highlighting the articulated individual skeletal elements in dorsal and lateral view. Note the arch of the foot, the size of the calcaneus and general robusticity of the bones in comparison to the hand bones (Image credit: WebMD 2013).


The excavation of the human skeleton should, where possible, be conducted with patience and great care for the recovery of all skeletal material possible (Brothwell 1981).  The elements that make up the foot, a total of 26 individual bones altogether (see below), are sturdy and largely compact bones, although it is likely that there will not be complete recovery of the distal phalanges due to their smaller size.  In supine and crouched burials the foot bones are likely to survive, although care must be taken when excavating at an unknown burial depth (Larsen 1997).  In cremation remains of individuals from archaeological sites it is still possible for certain elements to be recognised and described, especially in the case of the compact tarsal bones (Mays 1999).  In crowded burial grounds where the body is laid out in a supine position (lying flat on the back), as n the photograph below, burials often intersect each other, cutting off the lower part of the legs (Mays 1999).  This is a common feature in crowded burial grounds, and care must be taken when excavating and assigning individual skeletal elements to specific individual skeleton’s (Brothwell 1981).

bones brodsworth 07pic3 - Copy

A photograph of a Medieval burial ground near Brodsworth, Yorkshire, UK, from the 2007 excavation. Note the orientation and sequential laying of supine burials, and how the lower portion of the legs have been covered or destroyed by other burials. Courtesy of the University of Hull and the Brodsworth project.

Basic Musculature and Skeletal Anatomy

There are 26 bones in the human foot which are grouped into 7 tarsals, 5 metatarsals and 14 phalanges, for a total of 33 joints, of which 20 are actively articulated (See image below for skeletal elements in articulation, and Gosling et al. 2008, Mays 1999, White & Folkens 2005, for further reference).  The main joints of the foot itself include the transverse tarsal joint and tarsometatarsal joint (see figure below).  The talocrural (ankle) joint, the articulation between the leg and the foot, forms an important part of the stability of the foot, one of the main differences behind the pes and the manus (the wrist is extremely movable and flexible in comparison to the ankle).  Unlike the hand the foot cannot grasp and is not capable of fine motor movement, however the adipose tissue and plantar fascia (or aponeurosis) is tightly packed underneath the heel (calcaneus bone) for shock absorption during locomotion (Gosling et al. 2008: 304).  The stability of the ankle joint is strengthened by the wedge shaped articulation of the talus and calcaneus bones and by the strong collateral ligaments helping to tightly pack the anatomy during movement (Gosling et al. 2008: 304-305).


The individual sections and bones of a right sided human foot, which includes the tarsals, metatarsals, and phalanges from proximal to distal (Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannia 2007).

It is important to note here the two main arches of the human foot, the transverse arches and the medial and lateral longitudinal arches.  The functional anatomy of the arches allows the foot to remain stable during the pressures and energy exertion of locomotion but also retain flexibility so that it can grip different surfaces whilst enhancing forward propulsion (Gosing et al. 2008: 309).  The transverse arch is located along the cuneiforms, the cuboid bone and all of the metatarsal bases, and simply forms a domed shaped which strengthens the foot during locomotion.  The medial longitudinal arch is the highest of the arches and runs along the instep of the foot, alongside the calcaneus, talus, navicular, and cuneiform bones and up to the first three metatarsals (Gosling et al. 2008: 309).  The lateral longitudinal arch is lower and flatter than the media arch and runs alongside the calcaneus, the cuboid, and the fourth and fifth metatarsals (Gosling et al. 2008: 2010).

The arches are supported in their skeletal frame by a complex arrangement of extrinsic and intrinsic muscles, ligaments and tendons.  The sole of the foot contains numerous intrinsic muscles which mimic the muscles found in the hand, which include digitorum (flexor/abductor) and lumbrical muscles, whilst the plantar view houses the inter-osseus planar muscles (Gosling et al. 2008: 284).  It is worth remembering that the majority of the larger muscles that articulate and move the foot are located in the leg itself (soleus, gastrocnemius, and the anterior/posterior tibial muscles).  Although I will not discuss the soft tissues further, I highly recommend the ‘Human Anatomy Colour Atlas and Textbook’ by Gosling et al. (2008) as a key reference source.  The book has a high number of quality dissection photographs and anatomical diagrams clearly highlighting the different muscle, ligament and tendon structures.

Skeletal Elements: Tarsals

The 7 tarsal bones of the foot help to form the longitudinal and transverse arches of the foot, which is often called the tarsus.  The talus articulates superiorly with the distal tibia and fibula, the calcaneus forms the heel of the foot and supports the talus (White & Folkens 2005: 291).  The navicular sites between the 3 cuneiforms and the head of the talus (White & Folkens 2005: 292).  The 3 cuneiforms and the cuboid act as a second row of tarsal bones and articulate with the proximal heads of the 5 metatarsals.


Dorsal view of the tarsal elements and proximal metatarsals (Image credit: University of Cincinnati).

The Talus

The talus (astragalus in animals) is the 2nd largest tarsal and sits atop of the calcaneus, between the tibia and the fibula.  It is distinct in it’s saddle shape, with a head (that sides medially when viewed from above) and a body that forms the posterior portion of the bone.

The Calcaneus

The largest tarsal, forming the heel bone, the calcaneus is located inferior of the talus and supports the distal portion of the foot.  An intact calcaneus is extremely distinct, and can be sided by placing the ‘heel’ away from you and the articular surfaces superiorly, and the shelf (sustentaculum tali) should point the side it is from.

The Cuboid

The cuboid is located on the lateral side of the foot, between the calcaneus and the 4th and 5th metatarsals.  It is distinct in appearance because of its large size with a cuboidal body.  There is no articular surface on the lateral side of the bone, and the inferior surface has a pronounced cuboid tuberosity.

The Naviculuar

The navicular sits snugly between the talus and the cuneiform elements, and has a distinct concave proximal surface.  A tubercle points medially when viewed from the view of the talus.  It is similar in shape to the scaphoid carpal.

The Cuneiforms:


The medial cuneiform is the largest of the three cuneiforms, sitting between the navicular and base of the first metatarsal.  It is less of a wedge shape than the other two cuneiforms, and distinguished by it’s ‘kidney-shaped facet for the base of the first metatarsal’ (White & Folkens 2005: 298).


This cuneiform is the smallest of the cuneiforms and is located between navicular and the 2nd metatarsal base.  It articulates on either side with the lateral and medial cuneiforms.  The non-articular dorsal surface is key for siding, with a projecting surface points towards the side it comes from when the concave facet is pointed away from the holder (White & Folkens 2005: 298).


Located at the centre of the foot, and intermediate in size between the intermediate and medial cuneiform, the lateral cuneiform sits at the base of the foot.  It articulates distally with the 2nd, 3rd and fourth metatarsal bases, proximally with the navicular, medially with the intermediate cuneiform and laterally the cuboid (White & Folkens 2005: 299).


The 5 rays of the metatarsals are typically labelled as MT 1-5, with MT1 representing the hallux, or the big toe (as the thumb is named the pollex).  The metatarsals are all ‘tubular bones with rounded distal articular facets (heads) and more squarish proximal ends (bases)’ (White & Folkens 2005: 300).  They are more easily sided by the morphology of their bases.  It is important to note that each of the tarsals in the distal row (either of the 3 cuneiforms or the cuboid above) articulates with one or more of the metatarsal bases (White & Folkens 2005: 300).  The first metatarsal is the most massive and squat, whilst all non hallucial metatarsals articulate with each other.  The fifth metatarsal bears a distinctive blunt styloid process on it’s lateral side that makes it fairly identifiable.


A basic dorsal view of the metatarsal and phalangeal bones in the right foot. Note that the hallux (first digit medially) has only a proximal and a distal phalanx whilst the other digits have a proximal, intermediate and distal phalanx (Source).


The foot phalanges are the same in design as the hand phalanges with heads, bases and shafts but are much shorter and squatter than the hand phalanges.  Again they come  in three rows, with 5 proximal phalanges4 intermediate phalanges and 5 distal phalanges;  it should be noted that the MT1 hallux has, as does the thumb (pollex), only the proximal and distal phalanges with no intermediate phalanx, and is remarkably more chunkier then either of the other four rays.

Each Proximal Phalanx displays a ‘single, concave proximal facet for the metatarsal head and a spool-shaped surface distally’ (White & Folkens 2005: 306).

Each Intermediate Phalanx displays a ‘double proximal articular facet for the head of the proximal phalanx’, and again have a trochlea shaped distal articular facet (White & Folkens 2005: 306).

Each Distal Phalanx displays a double articular proximal facet for the head of the intermediate phalanx and a terminal tip of the bone, resulting in a non-articular pad (White & Folkens 2005: 307).

These phalanges are all much shorter than their companions in the hand, with the foot phalanges having a more circular shaft cross section compared to the D shape  shaft of the hand phalanges.  Foot phalanges generally display a more constrictive shaft than hand phalanges, although it can be difficult to side them and it is best done with a full replica or whole specimens for comparative analysis (White & Folkens 2005: 308).  

Further Online Sources

  • A detailed map of each element and the surrounding musculature (as well as relaxing classical music!) can be found on the website of the UMFT Department of Anatomy and Embryology site.  Be aware there are detailed anatomical prosection and dissection diagrams, but it is a free, fascinating and wonderful source (and with the music especially relaxing!).
  • A number of websites have detailed diagrams and photographs of the foot from a medial/lateral and a dorsal/planar view, including this site and this one.
  • Finally, do you know your tarsal bones? Test yourself here!


Brothwell, D. R. 1981. Digging Up Bones: The Excavation, Treatment and Study of Human Skeletal Remains.  Ithica: Cornell University Press.

D’Août, K., Pataky T.C., De Clercq, D. & Aerts, P. 2009. The Effects of Habitual Footwear Use: Foot Shape and Function in Native Barefoot Walkers. Footwear Science1 (2): 81. doi:10.1080/19424280903386411 

D’Août, K., Meert, L., Van Gheluwe, B., De Clercq, D. & Aerts, P. 2010. Experimentally Generated Footprints in Sand: Analysis and Consequences for the Interpretation of Fossil and Forensic Footprints. American Journal of Physical Anthropology141: 515–525. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21169

Gosling, J. A., Harris, P. F., Humpherson, J. R., Whitmore I., & Willan P. L. T. 2008. Human Anatomy Color Atlas and Text Book. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.

Jarmey, C. 2003. The Concise Book of Muscles. Chichester: Lotus Publishing. 

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

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

Documentary on Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva

24 Nov

There was recently a documentary on Channel 4 (in Britain) that highlighted an individual with Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP), a progressive bone disease in which the bodies natural repair mechanism causes fibrous tissues (including ligaments, tendons and muscles) to become ossified when damaged or hurt.  Typically lumbered with the name Stone Man Syndrome, the genetic disease itself is thankfully very rare with a rough prevalence of around 1 in every 2 million people.  A total of 700 cases have thus far been confirmed out of presumed 2500 cases worldwide at the current time.  The disease is ultimately devastating for the individual affected as it can lead to full ossification of every joint in the body, whilst the ossification of the fibrous tissues is typically a very painful process.  A full introduction to the disease can be found here on the emedicine website.

The program, entitled ‘The Human Mannequin‘, dealt with teenager Louise Wedderburn’s attempts to break into the fashion industry, despite her having this terrible disease.  The information byline for the show asked if the ‘notoriously image conscious fashion industry (would) accept her?’.  However, as the program progressed, it was clear to see that Louise had the tenacity necessary and had started to make clear progress towards her ideal career by gaining work placements at well recognised fashion magazines, and by starting to make her name known in the industry through her fighting spirit.

This program clearly was not about the disease itself, but about one person realising their dreams despite the disease.  As such, there was minimal background information regarding the history of the disease or of the prognosis of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva.  Instead this program helped to raise of the profile of a dynamic young individual who, despite having this disease, is determined to make the most of her life.  The viewer was allowed access into what life is like for a person suffering this disease, both for the drawbacks and the numerous hospital visits, but also for the everyday glimpses of how you can still live your life and make a positive impact.  I would wholeheartedly recommend watching the program if you have the chance.

Perhaps the most famous sufferer of FOP is a person called Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who bequeathed his skeleton to medical science whilst he was alive in the hope that his bones may one day help future researchers uncover a cure or help ease the pain of fellow sufferers.  Dying just short of his 40th birthday through complications arising via FOP, Harry Eastlack had became entombed within his own skeleton towards the end of his life as every joint ossified and fused completely, leaving only his lips free to move.

A photo of Harry Eastlack’s back and ribcage, with evidence of excess bone growth and ossification of the muscles, tendons and ligaments (via IFOPA).

Today researchers and medical staff at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia and the Mutter Medical Museum use his skeleton to help test and compare lab results and learn and study about the effects of FOP via his remains; Harry’s skeleton is only one of the few existing skeletons in the world with FOP and provides a very important source of knowledge, both for the medical world and the general public.

There are no known instances of FOP disease in the archaeological record, likely because it is so rare and the fact that prehistoric/historic individuals would not have likely survived as long as individuals do today with the condition.  However it is worth reading up on the disease just in case, and I would, once again, recommend watching the program.  As so often in the fields of archaeology and human osteology, we only get to investigate the bones of the dead themselves, they cannot tell us directly their lives or suffering so we must, as osteoarchaeologists, beware of what the bones can tell us.

Further sites of interest:

Infectious Disease Part 1: Treponemal Disease & Smallpox

5 Oct

The following two posts deal with biomolecular approaches and research studies in detecting the presence of infectious diseases in human bone from archaeological material.  The recent coming of age of biomolecular techniques, as applied to archaeological material, has provided a rich and complex source of information in helping to uncover how infectious diseases spread in the historic and prehistoric past.  Whilst it has help clear some mysteries up, it has unleashed others.  The first post, here, describes recent research focused on Treponemal diseases (including Yaws, Syphilis and Pinta) and Smallpox.  The second post can be found here.


Treponemal Diseases

Roberts & Manchester (2010: 216) note that infectious diseases are ‘not solely microbiological entities but are a composite reflection of individual immunity, social, environmental, and biological interaction’.  The study of treponemal disease, in particular, is fraught with controversy and stigma, both in the modern and historical contexts (Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 1, Roberts 2000), and in the nature of its spread and transmission.  However the combination of molecular pathology, phylogenetics, and palaeopathological studies, are helping to produce a clearer genetic origin of the disease and the impacts that this disease had, and continues to have, on the world at large (Hunnius et al. 2007: 2092).  Typically the bacterial diseases of the genus Treponema are split into different forms; pinta (T. carateum), yaws (T. pallidum subspecies pertenue), endemic syphilis (T. pallidum subspecies edemicum) and venereal/congenital syphilis (T. pallidum subspecies pallidum) (Table 1; Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 2).  The four forms were, until recently, indistinguishable in physical and laboratory characteristics (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 207), whilst the pinta strand does not affect bone (Waldron 2009: 103).  DNA analysis of the bacteria of venereal syphilis has shown a difference between it and the non-venereal types; although it is noted that there is no change in the clinical presentation of the disease (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 207).

Table 1. Geographic location, transmission and whether bone is affected for treponemal disease (after Waldron 2009: 103).

Yaws was likely the first disease to emerge, probably from an ape relative in Central Africa, whilst the endemic form of syphilis derived from an ancestral form in the Middle East and the Balkans at a later date, whilst T. pallidum was the last to emerge, probably from a New World progenitor, although the issue is still highly contentious (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 212, Waldron 2009: 105).  Gaining virulence at a dramatic rate in the 15th and 16th centuries AD in Europe, venereal syphilis affected a large section of the population due to its mode of transmission.  It should be noted, however, that bone changes in syphilis are rare in the early stages but common in the tertiary stage of the disease (Roberts & Manchester 2010).  It has also been noted that there could be a back and forth transmission, from one treponemal disease to another, within intra-population groups changing from one environment to another; that ultimately it’s possible that each social group, or population, has its own treponemal disease suited to its ‘geographic and climatic home and its stage of cultural development’ (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 213).

However, this infectious disease, in its venereal form, is particularly hard to locate and identify in archaeological populations; the limitations of biomolecular palaeopathology have become clear (Bouwman & Brown 2005: 711, Hunnius et al. 2007, Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 10).  Bouwman & Brown’s (2005) experiment, and Hunnius et al. (2007) subsequent paper, have highlighted the difficulties in amplifying T. pallidum subspecies T. pallidum, even in highly suspected bone samples.  Bouwman & Brown (2005: 711) tested 9 treponemal samples using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, optimized to highlight ancient treponemal DNA.  This resulted in poor amplification of  treponemal ancient DNA (aDNA) from human bone, even with bone of varying origins (geographic, social and climatic samples).  3 outcomes where postulated; the bones were either not suitable for aDNA retrieval, treponemal aDNA was present but the PCR was not sensitive enough to be pick it up, or there was no treponemal DNA in the bones (Bouwman & Brown 2005: 711-712).  Subsequent investigations and phylogenetic approaches have highlighted that the disease invades different parts of the body at impressive rates, but in the later stages of the disease, the organism’s DNA is not present in the actual bone itself, just at the stage when an osteologist can identify it macroscopically (Hunnius et al 2007: 2098).  Phylogenetic evidence supports evidence of variations in the virulence of syphilis, and the support of a more distant origin, possibly around 16,500 to 5000 years ago, but where exactly remains unsolved (Lucas de Melo et al. 2010: 2).  Interestingly, in the early 20th century P. Vivax (the main causer of malaria) was used as a treatment for patients with neurosyphilis in a procedure by the physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg; it was injected as a form of pyrotherapy to introduce high fevers to combat the late stage syphilitic disease by killing the causative bacteria (Wagner-Jauregg 1931).


The Smallpox virus is particularly devastating and disfiguring disease, but thankfully no longer an active infection in the modern world (Manchester & Roberts 2010: 180).  Although kept only in laboratory samples now, there is an ongoing concern regarding whether it could be a danger to modern archaeologists dealing with infected material (Waldron 2009: 110).  The disease, once contracted, either leads to recovery with lifelong immunity or death.  The severe form is called variola major and is documented in the Old World with a 30% death rate once contracted, whilst its less virulent form, named variola or alastrim minor, is found in Central America and has a mortality rate of 1% (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005, Li et al. 2007: 15788).  Smallpox, the strictly human variola virus pathogen, is found in literature and documentary records during the last 2000 years (Larsen 1997), yet an osteological signature is not present or identifiable in infected individuals (Waldron 2009: 110).  Therefore to find out the origins of the disease, Li et al. (2007) used correlated variola phylogenetics with historical smallpox records to map the evolution, origin and transportation of smallpox between human populations.

Li et al. (2007: 15787) state that no credible descriptions of the variola virus have been found on the American continent or sub-Saharan Africa before the advent of westward European exploration in the 15th century AD; suggesting that with European exploration and expansion came the virulent waves of smallpox that helped to decimate the existing Native American populations, who previously had no contact or natural immunization with such a highly virulent disease.  It is worth noting here the disease has been used in warfare as a chemical weapon surprisingly early.  During the 18th century American colonial wars between the French, British and the Native Americans, the British forces stationed in America actively infected items of clothing that were given to the Native population to help aid the spread of the disease among the Native Americans , who at that time were largely allied to the French.  This weakened the Native American population dramatically during the various colonial wars and subsequent colonial expansion westward; it’s estimated nearly half of the American Native population died from smallpox alone and its naturally rapid commutable spread of smallpox through human populations (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005).

Li et al. (2007: 15787) note that there are ambiguous gaps in the evolution of smallpox disease itself however.  Li et al. (2007) initiated a systematic analysis of the concatenated Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNP’s) from the genome sequences of 47 variola major isolates from a broad geographic distribution to investigate its origins.  Variola major has a slowly evolving DNA genome, which means a robust phylogeny of the disease is possible (Hogan & Harchelroad 2005).

Firstly, the results showed that the origin of variola was likely to have diverged from an ancestral African rodent–borne variola like virus, either around 16,000 or 68,000 thousand years ago dependent on which historical records are used to calibrate the molecular clock (East Asian or African) (Li et al. 2007: 15791).  Taterapox virus is associated with terrestrial rodents in West Africa, and provides a close relationship with the variola virus.  It is entirely possible that variola derived from an enzootic pathogen of African rodents, and subsequently spread from Africa outwards (Li et al. 2007: 15792).  Secondly, evidence points towards two primary clades of the variola virus, both from the same source as above, but each represent a different severity and virulence of the variola virus.

The first primary clade is represented by the Asian variola major strains, which are the more clinically severe form of smallpox;  the molecular study of its natural ‘clock’ suggests it spread from Asia either 400 or 1600 years ago (Li et al. 2007: 15788).  Included in this first primary clade is the subclade of the African minor variation of the main Asian variola major disease.  The second primary clade compromises two subclades, of which are the South American alastrim minor and the West African isolates (Li et al. 2007: 15788).  This clade had a remarkably lower fatality rate in comparison to the above clade.  The importance of phylogeny analysis is that it highlights areas of disease prevalence and virulence that can be missed, or indeed entirely absent, from the osteological and archaeological record (Brown & Brown 2011).


Bouwman, A. S. & Brown, T. A. 2005. The Limits of Biomolecular Palaeopathology: Ancient DNA cannot be used to Study Venereal Syphilis. Journal of Archaeological Science. 32: 703-713.

Brown, T. & Brown, K. 2011. Biomolecular Archaeology: An Introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing.

Hogan, C. J. & Harchelroad, F. 2005. Smallpox. Emedicinehealth. Accessed at on the 29th of April 2012.

Hunnius, T. E., Yang, D., Eng, B., Waye, J. S. & Saunders, S. R. 2007. Digging Deeper into the Limits of Ancient DNA Research on Syphilis. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 2091-2100.

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

Li, Y., Carroll, D. S., Gardner, S. N., Walsh, M. C., Vitalis, E. A. & Damon, I. K. 2007. On the Origin of Smallpox: Correlating Variola Phylogenics with Historical Smallpox Record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 104 (40): 15787-15792.

Lucas de Melo, F., Moreira de Mello, J. C., Fraga, A. M., Nunes, K. & Eggers, S. 2010 Syphilis at the Crossroad of Phylogenetics and Palaeopathology. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.4 (1): 1-11.

Mitchell, P. 2003. The Archaeological Study of Epidemic and Infectious Disease. World Archaeology. 35 (2): 171-179.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease. Stroud: The History Press.

Wagner-Jouregg, J. 1931. Verhutung und Behandlung der Progressiven Paralyse durch Impfmalaria.  Handbuch der Experimentellen Therapie, Erganzungsband Munchen.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Beginning of the MSc at Sheffield….

23 Sep

So I have finally landed in Sheffield, ready to start the Masters course in Human Osteology & Funerary Archaeology based in the Archaeology department.  I have had the introduction talks to both the University and to the course, and I am now filled with both trepidation & excitement!

The Sheffield program in Human Osteology offers several key things that made me sign up for their course above all others in the UK.  Firstly they offer the degree setting in a first class department with a wide variety of specialities, and numerous well-known archaeologists.  Secondly, the degree doesn’t just focus on the human skeleton in death but also on the soft tissues in life.  A core module this semester is Human Anatomy, in which I’ll be expected to learn the musculoskeletal system in detail through both lectures & dissection classes in the Biomedical department.  Thirdly, the course offers a more hands on approach to learning, by laying out the skeletons & getting the chance to study an individual in-depth.

The modules in the program include:-

1. Human Osteology

This lab and lecture based module will introduce the students to the core basics of the human skeleton.  Each week we we’ll be examining a part of the skeleton and studying its major muscle attachment features, ossification points and major landmarks.  We’ll be tested with a series of mini quizzes in both identifying fragments of bone & remarking on the major landmarks present.

2. Human Anatomy

A lecture & dissection based module in which all of the muscles of the musculoskeletal system will be studied in anatomical position, and how the origin and insertion points correspond with other muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and bone.  I am feeling quite apprehensive regarding this module as it will be the first time I’ve dissected a human body (wonderfully donated to the biomedical services of the University by generous members of the public), and the first time I’ve had to learn anatomy in detail.

3. Biological Anthropology 1

The BioAnth 1 module will deal with the wider issues, uses and research of the human skeleton in biological anthropology.  This involves the discussion and methods used in the taphonomy of remains, how to age & sex the skeleton, metric and non-metric variations & traits, bone microstructure & chemistry, analysis of cremated material, and finally how the skeletal data is assessed and reported; all taught through lectures & labs.  This allows the core skills to be acquired and built upon in the next BioAnth module.

4. Biological Anthropology 2

The second module builds upon what is learnt from the first module, and deals with the broader issues regarding palaeodemography, growth and development, functional anatomy,  biological evolution, population affinities & dietary reconstruction amongst others.  Again, this module looks very interesting and I’m quite keen to get my teeth into some of the issues discussed.

5. Funerary Archaeology

A core module of the MSc, the module deals with the various ways in which human societies worldwide deal with issues relating to death.  The societies discussed include both past and present throughout the world, and includes the varying funerary rituals present and the human responses to death.  The module will include case studies and focus on interpretation of the material and funerary culture alongside symbolism used in funerary rituals.

6. Quantitative Methods in Anthropology

Perhaps the module I am most nervous about!  This module will introduce and discuss various computational methods used in osteology, physical anthropology and palaeanthropology.  Both lecture and computer lab based classes will discuss various statistical methods used in modern anthropological research; this includes the use of modern computer programs such as CranID amongst others.  The use of statistics in human osteology is really key as a lot of time is spent interpreting the data from metric measurements to discern morphological changes and population affinities in skeletal populations.

7. Research Design in Anthropology

This module is primarily concerned with the dissertation aspect of the Masters so will include discussions such as feasibility studies depending on topic to be researched. (I’d better get thinking!).  Essentially it will prepare the student with critical skills in thinking of original and worthwhile topics to pursue an original program of research for the dissertation aspect of the degree.

8. Biomolecular Archaeology (My one free choice module!)-

This is a lecture based approach to methods & issues used and discussed in the field of biomolecular archaeology.  I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about aDNA & the use of stable light isotopes, both of which are helping to change and improve the knowledge of human evolution & diversity as we know it.  This module also discusses biomolecular techniques on both archaeobotanical and archaeozoological material, something that I’m also looking forward too.  The subjects that will be discussed include isotopes, lipids, proteins, and aDNA, which will be applied to key aspects of the human past such as dispersal, the rise of agriculture & investigation of disease.

The first semester will lay the groundwork for the modules and dissertation research in the 2nd semester and Summer dissertation research period.  The first semester topics include Human Osteology, Human Anatomy, Funerary Archaeology & Biological Anthropology 1.

And Thus

I started this blog to help introduce the field of Human Osteology from a student who is just starting to study the subject.  I also use this blog to update on various new finds or reports in the wider archaeological fields.  I will continue to do this as my program proceeds, however I may be slower in posting as the course is very intensive.  I also want to take this opportunity to thank readers, both past and present, for providing positive feedback thus far into the journey.


It is hereby noted that the information is taken from the Archaeology Departments information freely available over the internet and from my own personal notes & module information booklets.