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

6 May

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

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

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

Further Information

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


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

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

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

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

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

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

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.


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

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

Learn From One Another

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


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

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 28th June 2014

26 Jun

I’ve previously discussed the Rothwell medieval charnel chapel and ossuary project before on the site, but I just wanted to highlight another open day coming up on the Saturday 28th of June at Holy Trinity church in the village of Rothwell, near Northampton, for this great site.  The ossuary at Rothwell is one of only two or three surviving medieval charnel houses in the UK, so it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to visit this wonderful site and to learn about the history of the church and it’s importance in understanding medieval funeral and mortuary archaeology.

There will also be University of Sheffield researchers there on the day, talking to members of the public about what human osteologists can tell from the human skeletal itself, and of the recent bioarchaeological and historical research that continues to be carried out at Holy Trinity itself.  Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield who established and is leading the research at the chapel as a part of understanding the post-depositional treatment of human remains, will be organizing the event along with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield (Crangle 2013).  The team on the open day will also include a number of past and present researchers from the archaeology department from the University of Sheffield.  I, too, will be present helping by talking to members of the public on how to age and sex skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record.  It is something I am deeply looking forward to.


Family friendly events will be taking place, and there is also the the unique chance to learn about some of the research that has been carried out by Masters and doctoral students at the University of Sheffield.

The open day is part of the project to help understand the osteological remains present at Rothwell and to introduce members of the public to the human skeletal and what we can tell about individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  The open day will include crypt tours, where the stacked remains of medieval individuals (consisting of rows of crania and stacks of femora, amongst other bones) are stored alongside church tours of the early 13th century building.  The event will also be host to a number of family friendly activities which are focused on understanding what the human skeleton can inform us of.  This will include:

An Exploded Skeleton, with attempts made to piece the individual back together.

Mr and Mrs Bones, to see if there are differences in male and female remains and why this may be.

Old Bones, on how the skeleton changes as an individual ages and how this can effect the individual person.

My Aching Bones, detailing which diseases can affect the skeleton and which may be visible on skeletal remains themselves.

The research at the Rothwell ossuary and crypt is part of an ongoing and long term study into understanding the skeletal remains and their physical condition at the site.  This involves trying to ask what the bones are doing in the crypt in the first place, why they were placed as they were and what their function was by being placed in such a way.  The second major aim is to try to understand the composition of the stacked remains, highlighting the fact that it is not just the crania and femora but also many of the bones in the skeleton that are present in the stacks, as well as animal bones.  The third aim is to investigate where the people who are present in the crypt came from.  This includes the osteological analysis of the bones themselves for composition and for preservation levels, as well carrying out a statistical analysis on the bones using measurements based on anatomical landmarks to help indicate what populations/geographic areas the individuals came from.  The fourth major aim is to ask in what way new technology can help and supplement the standard osteoarchaeological approaches used by bioarchaeologists.  At Rothwell this has involved laser scanning the remains to produce 3D images, which is helping to promote the non-movement of some very fragile bones (Garland et al. 1988: 246) and highlight the value of new technology in human osteology (Gonissen forthcoming).

The importance of understanding the post-depositional movement and composition of the skeletal remains at Rothwell is really important as the site itself is not environmentally stable for the long-term storage of the remains.  By investigating the physical remains at Rothwell and understanding the funerary context that they were used in, it is hoped that the project can initiate and produce a more stable environment for the remains to be stored in, whilst also documenting mortuary behaviour that has largely gone under-studied when historians and osteoarchaeologists have studied the skeletal remains of individuals in the English medieval period.

In a curious way the Rothwell project has been highlighted on this site a few times, in blog interviews and in a number of posts on conferences, so it will be great to finally visit the site myself to see the stacked remains of medieval individuals and also to talk to members of the public about the real value of understanding human remains.

Learn More


Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

An Introduction to the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik Culture

6 Dec

A recent post of mine discussed the fickle nature of constructing and using databases when conducting archaeological research, however in that post I didn’t much expand upon the culture that I had studied in my dissertation for the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  So here is a brief introductory post, taken and edited from my own research, of the Linearbandkeramik culture of Central Europe, one of the first major agricultural practicing cultures in the European Neolithic period.  The Linearbandkeramik were named, somewhat imaginatively, after the linear bands found on their pottery and are hereby after referred to as the LBK.

Origins and Expansion of the Linearbandkeramik Culture

The LBK are an early Neolithic Central European culture dating from 5500 BC to 4900 BC, although there are sites dating to just before and after this period (Whittle 1996: 146).  The origin of the LBK culture and the exodus point is thought to be from the Starčevo–Kőrös–Criş cultures from the Hungarian Plain dating to around 5600 BC, which has been primarily identified due to similar incised pottery and similar radiocarbon dates for the location of the earliest LBK sites (Price et al. 2001: 593).  Largely known for their homogeneity in their architectural and material culture, the LBK distribution across the seemingly favoured loess plains was fairly rapid in archaeological terms.  Arching across from the Hungarian Plain in its origin to reaching the Paris Basin and Ukrainian plains at its zenith, two distinct geographic areas having been established for early and late LBK periods (Figure 1 below, Whittle 1996: 146).

The early phase originated from western Hungary and followed the Danube and other river corridors, rapidly reaching the Rhine and Neckar valleys within a few centuries (Jochim 2000: 186).  The second phase often mapped in studies includes the rapid extension into the Paris basin in eastern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in western Europe, towards the loess boundaries of the northern European plain in Germany and Poland, with extension as far as western Ukraine (Bogucki 2000: 198).  There are slight differences in regional chronologies, with evidence of LBK settlements as late as the middle of the 5th millennium BC in north eastern Europe (Vanmontfort 2008: 157), and evidence of the fragmentation of late LBK sites into different cultural entities in the northern and central European LBK sites (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).


Figure 1. The distribution and spread of LBK in Central Europe, where A is earliest LBK (5500 BC) and B is late LBK expansion (4800 BC) (Bogucki 2000: 198).

In general LBK settlements are found on loess soils, near water in valleys and in low lying situations, typically in woodland at its climax phase of post-glacial growth, although the archaeological evidence suggests that little or limited inroads were made into the surrounding woodlands (Whittle 1996: 149).  It is noted however that a few sites and exceptions lie outside the loess boundaries, particularly in Poland, near Kujavia, although no distinguishing features have been noted at these sites (Whittle 1996: 146).  It has also been pointed out by some that the inland environments the LBK favoured were naturally devoid of hunter-gatherer populations (Price 2000i: 4), although this has been argued against by some, especially in the earlier and middle period of the LBK cultural expansion where it is to be expected that some hunter-gatherer/LBK interaction would have probably occurred (Vanmontfort 2008: 151).

Throughout the distribution and period time frame of the LBK culture the climate was somewhat warmer than it is today, with the temperature sitting a few degrees higher which resulted in a relatively dryer central and eastern European plain (Bogucki 2000: 198).  It is thought that this relative rise in temperature could have a positive effect on agricultural and farming practices, providing an advantageous environment for the growth of plant material (Bogucki 2000).  One of the main points of discussion between researchers of the LBK culture concerns their expansion during the early Neolithic period is the nature of the mode of transmission of both their culture and their expansion into the Central European Plain (Bellwood 2005).  This echoes the expansion of the early Neolithic in Europe and, as the LBK are one of the first major and well documented farming cultures, there has been an increasing amount of research in the relationship between LBK centres, pre-existing hunter-gatherer cultures, and the rate of LBK expansion (Shennan 2011, Tresset & Vigne 2011, Vanmontfort 2008, Vencl 1986).  As such it is important to consider the individual LBK sites within their surrounding context and within the culture as a whole.  By making broad sweeping generalizations, nuances in the archaeological record are generally missed.

Linearbandkeramik Society

Gimbutas (1991) was one of the many early prehistorians who have argued that the Neolithic represented the continuation of the matriarchal society from the Upper Palaeolithic, as represented by one idea of the Venus figurines as symbols of matriarchy throughout European prehistory (Scarre 2005: 395).  Recent archaeological and genetic investigations have displaced this theory, particularly those regarding early Neolithic communities (Bentley et. al. 2012).  Evidence from the varying disciplines of linguistics (Fortunato 2011: 108), spatial models (Rasteiro et al. 2012) and biomolecular evidence (Lacan et al. 2011: 18255), amongst others, have highlighted the general trend of patrilocal kinship based societies amongst the Neolithic societies in Europe.  The continued use of isotopes in archaeological studies, including strontium as a marker of migration (Bentley et al. 2012), and carbon and nitrogen as dietary markers (Durrwachter et al. 2006, Oelze 2012), in the understanding of kinship and community differentiation in the LBK culture, in particular, is having a sustained impact on the perceptions of the society in the Neolithic period (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).

In Bentley et al.’s (2012: 4) study of over 300 individuals from 7 well known LBK sites (Vedrovice, Aiterhofen, Schwetzingen, Nitra, Kleinhadersdorf, Souffelweyersheim and Ensisheim) across the LBK distribution compelling evidence was uncovered that suggests that the LBK society, as whole, was patrilocal in nature.  Evidence gathered from the strontium isotope program highlighted significantly less variance in the geographic signature amongst males than amongst the females tested, and with less variance amongst burials with ground stone shoe last adzes than those without (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).  Durwachter et al. (2006: 41) and Oelze et al. (2011: 276) studies indicate no substantial difference between male and female diets at LBK sites or any preferential access to differing foodstuffs.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) however do suggest that males, particularly those with an adze present in their grave, represent individuals who have preferential access to preferred loess soils.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) go on to state that, generally speaking, the results indicate that ‘male inheritance of land means that males tend to live where they were born, while females marry and moved elsewhere’.  Bentley et al (2012: 4) conclude that ‘unequal and inherited land access developed over time among the early farmers of central Europe’, with evidence of differential access to goods being able to be traced back to the early Neolithic.

Linearbandkeramik Material and Mortuary Culture

The architectural and material culture of the LBK was fairly standardised and remarkably consistent throughout their cultural lifespan although regional variations did exist, especially towards the end of the LBK chronology (Bogucki 2000: 205).  Often clustered into villages, the LBK people practised agriculture in a subsistence economy, cultivating cereals and legumes such as barley, emmer, einkorn, pea, lentil and flax, using intensely cultivated garden sized plots to grow the produce.  Animals, such as cattle and pigs, were also kept, as well as hunting animals which were locally available (Bogaard 2004).  Many LBK settlements were open, without any defined or bounded perimeter, and consisted of 8-10m long timber built longhouses spaced apart by 2-3m from each other, which were often orientated in the same way (Bradley 2001).  The size and numbers of longhouse dwellings at LBK sites varied from just a few to a more than 40 (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).  No LBK longhouses have been found with the floor intact, limiting exact evidence and, with the de-calcification of the loess soils since LBK times, much organic material and evidence has been further lost from the archaeological record (Whittle 1996: 160).  In the late LBK period (5000 BC onwards) there was a proliferation of ditched enclosures, varied in shape and form, though most occupying a space no more than 2 ha. in size, throughout the geographic spread of the LBK (Whittle 1996: 174).

Typical artefacts such as shoe last adzes, stone axes, flints, stone hammers, polished adzes, incised pottery decorations, spondylus shells shaped into beads and necklaces, are found at sites throughout the distribution of the culture (John 2011: 41, Whittle 1996: 171).  Material culture is also the social inward and outward expression of a culture, with goods often in daily use and in circulation between families, friends and communities throughout the LBK settlements.  Pottery throughout the LBK period was incised with linear bands, which may have been imbued with some meaning or statement as regional styles proliferated throughout (Whittle 1996: 173).  Whittle (1996: 173) further suggests that although adzes are and have been seen as status indicators (Bentley et al. 2012), the key question is the ownership of such objects.  That a male or female may be buried with an adze, does not necessarily mean that they owned the artefact during life (John 2011).    It seems increasingly likely, however, that during their working lifetime adzes were worth acquiring, even by forager communities associated around the LBK periphery, such ‘as seen at (the) Skateholm II’ site in Scania, southern Sweden (Whittle 1996: 174).  The spondylus shells are also indicators of trade and circulation of goods with areas such as the Adriatic and north Aegean (Bentley et al. 2012: 1), which are often taken as indicators of status and community differentiation, which is often correlated with reproductive advantages (Bocquet-Appel et al. 2012: 335).

The mortuary culture of the LBK has been evidenced by the excavation and evaluation of several large cemeteries, such as the early LBK Vedrovice site and late LBK sit of Aiterhofen (as discussed in my dissertation thesis), and by the less well investigated cremations at various other sites (Hofmann & Bickle et al. 2011: 185).  Inhumations are typically single crouched burials, with the individual placed on their left side (Figure 2 below, Bickle et al. 2011).  Inhumation and cremation are not mutually exclusive as both have been found at several sites together, obstinately having been practiced at the same time as each other (Whittle 1996: 168).


Figure 2. A ‘typical’ LBK crouched inhumation burial from the mid period LBK site of Aiterhofen, Germany.  Notice the stone tool behind the skull of the individual and the spondylus shells draped around the head (Bickle et al. 2011: 1247).

Whilst the majority of burials from the LBK period have come from cemetery sites, inhumations are also sometimes found under settlement structures with the majority of these belonging to female or juvenile individuals.  Added to this are other inhumations which have been found inside settlements, pits, or in ditches outside settlements (Bentley et al. 2012).  Polished shoe last adzes, incised pottery, lithics, spondylus shells and beads, are just some of the artefacts found at LBK sites and in inhumations throughout the LBK cultural lifespan.  Both Bentley (2012ii) and Bentley et al. (2012: 4) studies have shown a positive correlation between the presence of shoe last adzes and male burials, whilst their 87Sr/86Sr studies have shown a pattern of a patrilocality society amongst the populations considered in the studies.  Empty burial plots (of either body or funerary goods) have also been discovered at numerous LBK cemeteries, with the possibility that the grave sites were meant to remain empty as a symbolic act (Lenneis 2010i: 164).

Late period LBK ‘death pits’, such as at Talheim and Herxheim in southern Germany and Asparn Schletz in Austria, represent something altogether more different, possibly massacre sites although this is heavily debated (Bentley et al. 2008, Bishop & Knusel 2005, Wahl & Konig 1986: 150).  Evidence of violence is not uncommon in the preceding Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Europe (Duday 2006, Lillie 2004, Schulting 2006), however Whittle (1996: 171) states that at Talheim in particular the ‘scale of violence (here) is unexpected’.  The above three sites have been explained as possibly symptomatic of the LBK world towards its end.  Whittle states that the most general inference to be drawn is that it is consistent with the rest of the LBK evidence, that the massacre sites size and their victims represent the strong norms of ‘communally sanctioned behaviour’ (1996: 171).

  • The abstract for my dissertation, focusing on patrilocality and the use of isotopes, can be found here.
  • Previous posts discussing the Linearbandkeramik culture can be found here.
  • If you would like a copy of the dissertation thesis please email me (address is in the about me tab).


Bellwood, P. 2005. First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. London: Wily-Blackwell.

Bentley, R. A., Wahl, J., Price, T. D. & Atkinson, T. C. 2008. Isotopic Signatures and Hereditary Traits: Snapshot of a Neolithic Community in Germany. Antiquity. 82 (316): 290-304.

Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., Hamiliton,. J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R-M., Hofmann, D. & Whittle, A. 2012. Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe’s First Farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113710109. 1-5.

Bentley, R. A. 2012i. Social Identity in the Early Linearbandkeramik: Evidence from Isotopes, Skeletons and Burial Contexts. Early Farmers: The View from Archaeology and Science Conference Booklet. University of Cardiff, Wales. May 2012. pp. 23.

Bentley, R. A. 2012ii. Mobility and the Diversity of Early Neolithic Lives: Isotopic Evidence from the Skeletons. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Accessed at Http:// on the 13/06/12.

Bickle, P., Hofmann, D., Bentley, R. A., Hedges, R., Hamilton, J., Laiginhas, F., Nowell, G., Pearson, D. G., Grupe, G. & Whittle, A. 2011. Roots of Diversity in a Linearbandkeramik community: Isotope Evidence at Aiterhofen (Bavaria, Germany). Antiquity. 85 (330): 1243-1258.

Bishop, N. A. & Knusel, C. J. 2005. A Palaeodemographic Investigation of Warfare in Prehistory. In:  M. P. Pearson & I. J. N. Thorpe (eds.) Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. BAR International Series. 1374. Oxford: Archaeopress. 201-216.

Bocquet-Appel, J., Naji, S., Linden, M. V., & Kozlowski, J. 2012. Understanding the Rates of Expansion of the Farming System in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science.  39 (2): 531-546.

Bogaard, A. 2004. Neolithic Farming in Central Europe. London: Routledge.

Bogucki, P. 2000. ‘How Agriculture Came to North-Central Europe’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 197-218.

Bradley, R. 2001. Orientations and Origins: A Symbolic Dimension to the Long House in Neolithic Europe. Antiquity. 75 (287): 50-56.

Duday, H. 2006. L’archaeothanatologie ou L’archaeologie de la Mort (Archaeothantology or the Archaeology of Death). In: R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (eds.), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 30-52.

Durrwachter, C., Craig, O. E., Collins, M. J., Burger, J. & Alt, K. W. 2006. Beyond the Grave: Variability in Neolithic Diets in Southern Germany? Journal of Archaeological Science. 33 (2006): 39-48.

Fortunato, L. 2011. Reconstructing the History of Residence Strategies in Indo-European-Speaking Societies: Neo-, Uxori, and Virilocality. Human Biology. 83 (1): 107-128.

Gimbutas, G. 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Hofmann, D. & Bickle, P. 2011. Culture, Tradition and the Settlement Burials of the Linearbandkeramik. In: B. W. Roberts & M. V. Linden (eds.) Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability and Transmission. New York: Springer. pp. 183-200.

Jochim, M. 2000. ‘The Origins of Agriculture in South Central Europe’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 183-196.

John, J. 2011. Status of Spondylus Artefacts within the LBK Grave Goods. In: F. Ifantidis & M. Nikolaidou (Eds.) Spondlyus In Prehistory: New Data & Approaches- Contributions to the Archaeology of Shell Technologies. BAR International Series 2216. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 39-45.

Lacan, M., Keyser, C., Ricaut, F., Brucato, N., Duranthon, F., Guilaine, J., Crubézy, E. & Ludes, B. 2011. Ancient DNA Suggests The Leading Role Played by Men During the Neolithic Dissemination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  108 (45): 18255-18259.

Lenneis, E. 2010i. Empty Graves in LBK Cemeteries: Indications of Special burial Practises. Documenta Praehistorica. XXXVII: 161-166.

Lillie, M. C. 2004. Fighting For Your Life? Violence at the Late-Glacial to Holocene Transition in Ukraine. In: M. Roksandic (ed.) Violent Interactions in the Mesolithic: Evidence and Meaning. BAR International Series. 1237. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 89-96.

Oelze, V. M., Siebert, A., Nicklish, N., Meller, H., Dresely, V. & Alt, K. W. 2011. Early Neolithic Diet and Animal Husbandry: Stable Isotope Evidence from Three Linearbandkeramik (LBK) Sites in Central Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (2): 270-279.

Price, T. D. 2000i. ‘Europe’s First Farmers: An Introduction’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 1-19.

Price, T. D., Bentley. A. R., Luning, J., Gronenborn, D. & Wahl, J. 2001. Prehistoric Human Migration in the Linearbandkeramik of Central Europe. Antiquity. 75: 593-603.

Rasteiro, R., Bouttier, P., Sousa, C. C & Chikhi. 2012. Investigating Sex-biased Migration During the Neolithic Transition in Europe, Using an Explicit Spatial Simulation Framework. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. Doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2323 accessed on the 20th of May 2012.

Scarre, C. 2005. Holocene Europe. In Scarre, C. (ed.) The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 392-431.

Shennan, S. J. 2011. Property and Wealth Inequality as Cultural Niche Construction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 366: 918-926.

Schulting, R. J. 2006. Skeletal Evidence and Contexts of Violence in the European Mesolithic and Neolithic. In: R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (eds.), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 224-237.

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Vanmontfort, B. 2008. Forager-Farmer Connections in an ‘Unoccupied’ Land: First Contact on the Western Edge of LBKTerritory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 27 (2): 149-160.

Vencl, S. 1986. The Role of Hunter-Gathering Populations in the Transition to Farming: A Central-European Perspective. In: M. Zvelebil (ed.) Hunters In Transition: Mesolithic Societies and their Transition to Farming. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 43-51.

Wahl, J. & Konig, H. G. 1987. Anthropologish-Traumatologishe Untersuchung der Menschlichen Skelettreste aus dem Bandkeramischen Massengrab bei Talheim, Kreis Heilbronn. Fundberichte aus Baden-Wurttemberg. 12: 65-193.

Whittle, A. 1996. Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 144-211.

Databse Fun: Of Databases, Statistics and Isotopes

25 Nov

I know what you are thinking – what sort of misspelled title is that for a blog post? The answer is below dear reader (1)!

Databases are, in my humble opinion, awful, tedious and time consuming beasts to create and are often best tackled head on armed only with a black coffee for sustenance as you try to accurately type a mind-numbing amount of data into an excel spreadsheet at 2am in the university library.  (That may just be my experience though!).  The beauty of a completed database, however, cannot be overestimated.  This is where you get to test out hypotheses based on the data that you have selected and gathered for your research question, where all of the core information lies and where the data can be repeatedly and demonstratively tested again and again.  A completed and ordered database is a thing of beauty and, when looked at 6am in the morning after a tiring night of inputting data, a thing of magnificence!

But let’s start at the beginning.  I recently had cause to look again at the database I had made for my MSc dissertation and, as I scrolled across and down the excel spreadsheet, I could just about remember the hours I had spent producing the spreadsheet, justifying the column titles and entering the data itself.  My data set included strontium isotopic results gathered from 422 individuals across 9 different sites from the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK, roughly 5500BC to 4800BC) culture of Central Europe, with my sample ranging geographically from the modern countries of Austria, Czech Republic and Germany. The data set used for my study was carefully culled from a literature review and a close reading of a number of journal articles that were available at that time (mid 2012).

My aim was to investigate statistically the claim of patrilocality in the LBK culture as proposed by Bentley et al. (2012) by investigating the specific sex and age differences within the profile group by using strontium isotopes as proxies.  Strontium isotopes samples (specifically 87Sr/86Sr) are often taken from both human and animal skeletal remains (primarily from teeth, specifically the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars as they reflect Sr values throughout the life of an individual) as it survives well in archaeological contexts and is an informative approach to investigate mobility and local/non-local status of individuals.  Strontium values reflect geochemical signatures in the dietary component of the individuals, which comes from the soils and the underlying geological landscape that the individual lived on.  There are issues with this method (2) (see also this blog’s comments section).  Strontium isotopic investigations in archaeology are often studied in conjunction with oxygen isotopes (18O/16O) sampled from tooth enamel as well (specifically the 2nd molar) which represents water drank in life, but, frustratingly, this has not been the case in the LBK literature.

I knew that I wanted to statistically test the data set using SPSS 19, the standard statistical program widely used in the social sciences, but I first needed to tabulate and code the data so it would be useful when it came to testing the data.  As the study also included comparisons of the funerary grave goods and a basic demographic investigation of each site coding the entries (1=male, 2=female or 1=present 2=absent) allowed for comparisons to be made in the SPSS program and for statistical tests to be carried out.  The strontium itself was, as expected, non-parametric, which meant that the data adhered to no specific characteristic structure or parameter.


The normality test, using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov and Shapiro-Wilk statistical tests, indicates that the strontium data used for this study of the 422 individuals was not distributed normally (the P-value, nominally a significance value, is 0.000 for these tests). This means that tests such Spearman’s Rho correlation (quantity between variation), Mann-Whitney U (2 independent variables) and Kruskal-Wallis (3 or more independent variables) are the most appropriate statistical tests to perform on this data set (Bryman & Cramer 2011: 245).

When building the database I also wanted any relevant information and references easy to hand so I included the skeletal number (as given in the articles), site name, period, sex, sex code, isotope source, body position, funerary artefacts found and reference etc for each individual used in the study (see below).


A screen shot of the database used in my MSc dissertation displaying the revelent information of the 422 individuals from the LBK sites used in the study. The data was entered in a Excel spreadsheet before being transferred to SPSS for statistical investigation. Click to enlarge.

The data was carefully added over a number of days once I had gathered all the required journal articles discussing the sites I had chosen  The sites themselves were largely located in southern Germany, with the 9 sites nicely split into three time periods throughout the chronology of the LBK period.  Perhaps somewhat hastily I added this to the database and assigned the values of the individuals with a Early, Middle and Late ranking for their respective site.


Towards the bottom of the database used for the study. Here we can see the references cited for each site used in the study and the specific coding for funerary items (the two columns before reference column on the right hand side, where 1 depicts present and 0 absent).

During the construction of this database I did encounter problems as I had not built such a large database before, indeed the only time I had really used a database properly was for my undergraduate dissertation some years previous whilst using ArcGIS.  The problems this time included whether I was actually coding the funerary items the right way round or not, reading back through the database and correcting any errors in typing (especially for the strontium values) and making sure I correctly identifying the individuals used in their respective articles.  There are some things inherent in archaeology that cannot be solved.  This includes lacking contextual data or written site reports (which may or may not exist hidden in regional archaeological unit headquarters, not known or available to the public or indexed on any site).

Of course there were problems with my approach, which I expounded on in fuller detail in the thesis itself.  This did include problems interpreting the strontium results and distinguishing between local and non-local individuals at the site when there is no reference data to compare it to and debating my own statistical approach.  Still, as frustrating as building the database was, I did enjoy carrying out my own investigation of it immensely.  On rainy days I often think that my dataset could do with a second look at and investigation, perhaps I could change this approach or that, use this statistical method instead and isolate that clump of individuals etc.

It may be a pipe dream for the moment (I lack a working SPSS program for one!) but this is as much of a key part of archaeology and archaeological research as digging in the mud is.  Research is what drives archaeology and human osteology forward, from new scientific techniques to reviewing old data and finding new patterns.  The past is always present in new technology, you just have to drive it forward sometimes.

I will be introducing the Neolithic LBK culture in further detail in an upcoming post and discussing the merits of my thesis in further detail in another post.  For now I hope you have enjoyed this brief delve into what was the core of that research, the database itself.


(1.) This post was named in honour of a spelling mistake I made in the contents pages of my MSc thesis, spotted only when I proudly showed a friend a copy of the thesis a few weeks after the hand in date.  This, of course, led to gales of laughter from both of us (and to my internal cringing) as my poor editing skills came to light and it still remains a favoured joke to this day.

(2.) A few problems have become apparent with the strontium isotope technique, as with any mature and widespread application of a scientific technique, and it is worth mentioning them here (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).

Firstly is the issue of what a local and non-local signature mean for the prehistoric individual, as technically the 87Sr/86Sr ratio reflects diet over a period of time, and said food could have come from non-local sources.  However, this could be a distinct benefit, as it may be possible to identify individuals whose subsistence activity took place over a diverse range of territories (Bentley et al. 2004: 366, Price et al. 2002: 131).  Secondly, diagenesis affects anything buried and groundwater strontium has a tendency to penetrate the skeleton after burial (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  In this study only enamel from the permanent dentition (1st or 2nd molars) is used, as this mitigates the effects of diagenesis because enamel is a strong biological material containing large mineral crystals, rendering it much less porous than bone and it is highly resistant to biochemical alteration (Killgrove 2010, Richards et al. 2008).  The third issue concerns the environmental heterogeneity of the strontium isotope signatures, which as Bentley (et al 2004: 366) points out ‘vary in different minerals of a single rock, in the leaves, stems and roots of a plant, or in water sources such as streams and precipitation’.  The measurement of small herbivore bones, or snail shells, at the locality of the archaeological site, preferably from the same chronological age, can obtain a remarkably consistent 87Sr/86Sr ratio, which is representative of the local catchment area (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  The use of strontium ratio is however just one tool among many that is used to shed light on our ancestors; it should always be used in combination with other techniques of investigation to elucidate the full range of potential data present of archaeological sites and materials (Montgomery 2010, Richards et al. 2001, Van Klinken et al. 2000).


Bentley, R. A., Price, T. D. & Stephan, E. 2004. Determining the ‘local’ 87Sr/88Sr Range for Archaeological Skeletons: A Case Study from Neolithic Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science. 32 (4): 365-375.

Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., Hamiliton,. J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R-M., Hofmann, D. & Whittle, A. 2012. Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe’s First Farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113710109. 1-5.

Bryman, A. & Cramer, D. 2011. Quantitative Data Analysis with IBM SPSS 17, 18 & 19: A Guide for Social Scientists. London: Psychology Press.

Killgrove, K. 2010. Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD Thesis. University of North Carolina. (Open Access).

Montgomery, J. 2010. Passports from the Past: Investigating Human Dispersals Using Strontium Isotope Analysis of Tooth Enamel. Annals of Human Biology. 37: 325–346. (Open Access).

Price, T. D., Burton, J. H. & Bentley, R. A. 2002. The Characterisation of Biologically Available Strontium Isotope Ratios for the Study of Prehistoric Migration. Archaeometry. 44 (1): 117-135.

Richards, M.P., Fuller, B,. T. & Hedges, R. E. M. 2001. Sulphur Isotopic Variation in Ancient Bone Collagen from Europe: Implications for Human Palaeodiet, Residence Mobility, Modern Pollutant Studies. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 191 (3-4): 185-190.

Richards, M. P., Montgomery, J., Nehlich, O. & Grimes, V. 2008. Isotopic Analysis of Humans and Animals from Vedrovice. Anthropologie. XLVI (2-3): 185-194.

Van Klinken, G., Richards, M. and Hedges, R. 2000. An Overview of Causes for Stable Isotopic Variations in Past European Human Populations: Environmental, Ecophysiological, and Cultural Effects. In S. Ambrose and M. Katzenberg (eds). Biogeochemical Approaches to Palaeodietary Analysis. New York: Kluwer Academic. pp. 39-63.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 10th August 2013

4 Aug

The archaeology department at the University of Sheffield have recently teamed up with the Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell in Northampton, England, to conduct analysis on human bones and public outreach at one of only two suspected surviving in-situ medieval charnel houses in the UK (Crangle 2013).

The site, a church built in the 13th century AD, houses the skeletal remains of hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of individuals who were stored and lain to rest, after burial, at the site during the middle and late medieval period. It is thought that following the dissolution of the monasteries and reformation in the 1600’s the charnel house fell out of use (Garland et al. 1988: 236).  The charnel house and ossuary were supposedly re-discovered accidentally by a gravedigger in the 1700’s, and during the 19th and 20th centuries numerous examinations of the bones were been carried out with the report of the declining environment and effect of fungi on the bones highlighted in Garland’s et al. examination (1988: 240).

The University of Sheffield’s new project aims to cover in-depth the osteological and archaeological material at Rothwell with plans for conservation of the site and skeletal material, whilst engaging deeply with public education and interaction, helping to highlight the inherent educational worth of human skeletal remains and their use in human osteology and archaeology (Crangle 2013).

Rothwellllwellllll 1988

Figure 5 (right) and 6 (left) from Garland et al. (1988: 242-243) highlighting the individual skulls lined up on wooden racks and the femora piled up at Rothwell’s ossuary (note the distal area of the femora are visible).  Garlands et al. (1988) article discusses the histological and environmental conditions of a selected sample of bones present, indicating that demineralisation was occurring during their storage at the ossuary; although action has now taken place to stop further bone degradation, further conservation is envisaged by the Sheffield project.

Further to this the Rothwell church is holding an open day next Saturday (10th of August 2013) where the general public can come and learn about the fascinating site.  The open day will include an introductory talk about the project, guided tours around the Holy Trinity crypt, its ossuary and church itself, a hands on sessions of human bone identifying for the general public, alongside a small series of talks from lecturers and students at the University of Sheffield, detailing their research aims and project areas (Crangle 2013).  The research on the human bone material will be conducted at the University of Sheffield’s Osteology Lab, a well kitted out setting where plenty of bone experts are on hand for the research and analysis of the bone sample and the historical context of the ossuary remains.

Jennifer Crangle, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, has wrote a fascinating article for the Past Horizons website explaining the importance of the functions and uses of charnel houses and ossuaries during the medieval period in Europe.  Especially important is the fact that Crangle (2013) has highlighted each aspect of Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church and the importance of  these skeletal remains for the church goers during the medieval period.  The article is well worth a read before making your way down to the church itself.

Sadly I cannot attend this event, but I would encourage everyone who would be interested to head down and check it out.  It is rare that human remains, especially an English in-situ medieval ossuary, are open and on display to the public (unless you happen to live near to some wonderful churches in the Czech Republic and Italy).  There are also opportunities to learn about skeletal anatomy first hand.  As such, it is a wonderful chance to learn about medieval burial and religious practices with dedicated and knowledgeable staff, whilst also learning about the beauty of the human skeleton first-hand.

Further Information

  • The open day begins on Saturday 10th August from 11am-4pm for guided tours and activities, with talks are from 6pm-8pm.
  • General public, families, students and academics are more than welcome!
  • Further information and regular updates can be found here on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Facebook site.


Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology. 7 (2): 235-249.

Grave Matters: Archaeology & Politics

2 Aug

Archaeology and politics are often uncomfortable bedfellows, perhaps more so than many archaeologists like to admit.  This, it is fair to say, is especially the case when dealing with the issue of human remains in either prehistoric or historical instances.  However archaeological sites are never ‘static’ shots of one particular time, but rather often act as an accumulation of an extended period of time, compacted into the earth for the archaeologist to decipher.  They neither belong fully to the past, nor fully to the present.  Further to this we (the archaeologists) don’t just view and interpret an archaeological site from a historical (or prehistorical) vantage point, we necessarily (and often subconsciously) filter the evidence present through our own life experiences, professional knowledge and socio-cultural factors.  Whilst this post could go off on a theoretical tangent here, I will keep it cogent to this point alone: human bodily and skeletal remains are an emotive subject, especially when archaeology and politics mix.  So bearing this in mind, here are several examples where politics meets the trowels edge, often resulting in friction between the two.

The Spitalfields cemetery (possible one of the largest excavated in the world with just under 11,000 burials excavated) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation.  It is site of such osteoarchaeological and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the most documented cemetery excavations carried out in Britain, if not the world for its richness of remains and evidence for the social context that the individuals inhabited (Pethen 2010).  A report on the archaeological and historical background of the area can be read here, detailing the wealth of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern archaeological finds and cemetery sites (Elders et al. 2010).  The Spitalfields area itself is a site of beauty, a breath of fresh air in a crowded city, with the beautiful baroque Christ Church dominating the area near its centre.

In a letter in the recent edition of Private Eye (Issue 1345)  a reader has wrote of the proposed school extension of the Christ Church primary school onto the Spitalfields graveyard.  This is due to a severe over-crowding of the school in an area where local council authorities have been banned from opening new state schools, unless they are to be built as an academy.  Academies are another feature of the unpopular UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s educational reforms, which operate from central government funds and dictate their own curriculum, although they (and Gove’s other reform ideas) have come under sustained attack from numerous teaching unions and local authorities for distorting choice, spoiling funds and promoting the teaching of creationism.  A campaign to stop the school development can be found here, but I would caution that the school may have little choice in the matter.


A section of the Medieval cemetery excavated at St Mary Spital burial ground highlighting the closeness of the buried individuals. In particular note the overlaying of the bodies, highlighting the fact that they had not been buried in coffins. This is not the Spitalfields site but reminiscent of similar burial traditions within medieval London (Source: Current Archaeology 2012).

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, the ruling party Zanu-PF have likely won again following recent 2013 elections (1).  The incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, has remained in power following 30 years of rule despite continued disputed election results in recent years and statistically dubious polls, with a large number of deceased individuals being named as voters on the recent polling lists.  Zanu-PF have often used underhand methods to maintain power before in the country, which is still currently edging out of a deep recession which had seen currency hyperinflation, including voter intimidation, forced removal and sustained campaigns of violence.  Yet in 2008 a power brokerage deal was agreed with the opposition party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has joined the government as Zimbabwe’s prime minister.

Grisly news articles broke in early 2011 when it was reported that over 600 human bodies (possibly thousands) in various states of decay had been found in various mine shafts at Chimbondo, near Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe.  A large portion of the bodies found have been removed from context and buried elsewhere, but others remain in-situ.  Claims abound from sources inside Zimbabwe that they represent victims of the colonial period (from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence), whilst other governments and opposition parties have questioned whether they are instead the victims of Zanu-PF’s sustained campaigns of intimidation and violence.  Various news reports have suggested that the bodies have been known about for a number of years, and that individuals still had bodily fluids or soft flesh attached, or leaking from, their bodies.  Amnesty International have called for forensic experts to have access to the mass graves to carry out detailed forensic investigative tests to assess the demography of the mass graves, age and sex the bodies and positively ID individuals, by carrying out DNA studies, if possible (Jurmain et al. 2011: 22).

Yet despite repeated calls for access from Amnesty International and other organisations and governments from around the world, none is forthcoming or has been granted from the Zanu-PF led government of Zimbabwe (Amnesty International 2011).  The victims remain potent symbols of political propaganda, whilst their individual identities themselves are being disregarded.  By refusing to identify individuals and profile the dead, the authorities in Zimbabwe are helping to undermine the individuals themselves and the families who have lost loved ones, regardless of whether they died in the independence war or as a result of the discord and violence post-independence.  This makes the political parties implicit with guilt.

zimbabwe 2011massgrave

Unidentified individuals found in the 2011 mass graves in northern Zimbabwe. The conditions of the clothes and of the bodies, from this site and others, indicate the possibility that the victims were killed post-War of Independence. (Source: Daily Mail 2011).

In Florida, in the USA, there has been recent upset and outrage over the refusal (still as of early August 2013) for permission to be granted to a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida to excavate and help identify suspected abuse victims from a 1930’s onwards reform school in Mariana, northern Florida.  This is despite the results of ground penetrating radar surveys conducted on a suspected cemetery site at the Mariana campus of the Dozier School For Boys, which reportedly found evidence for 50 suspected graves, a far larger percentage then previously thought or suspected (Hennig 2012).  Rick Scott, the current Florida Governor, has disagreed with the forensic anthropologists over the exhumation of the graves, citing that the University team do not have the legal requirements to excavate the remains.  This has been met with outrage from families and survivors of the reform school, with one predominant group nicknamed the White House Boys who urgently want answers on how many people died at the school through abuse.  Outrage has also been picked up on a larger scale across the US, with Senator Bill Nelson decrying the ridiculous stance the state of Florida has taken on the issue.

The US has fairly tough laws on the excavation of human remains, be they historical or prehistoric, with tough guidelines and stringent checks enforced through the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) laws.  However, even allowing for the complexities of US legal requirements for the exhumation of human remains, the reform school investigation and associated problems in excavating possible abuse victims seems especially convoluted, with state departments blaming each other for the confusion.  Rick Scott does has form for his distaste for all things anthropological, stating that anthropology is not needed in Florida.  Somewhat of an oversight when the state is home to many important archaeological sites and osteological collections (Windover, for instance).  News is to follow as to whether Rick Scott will give in to the families and researchers demands to let the forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains, with a vote set for Tuesday (13th August 2013) (2) (3) (4) (5).  Since the original writing of this post the decision was taken for anthropologists to investigate and exhume the bodies.  This continues currently, and has fruitfully positively identified a number of the young individuals who were tortured and buried at the location of the reform school.  Graves have also been found outside of the regular cemetery, suggesting that ad-hoc burials took place.

braziers school

The Doziers school for Boys were the abuse was alleged to have taken place. (Source: Daily Mail 2012).

Upon reading this entry you may think that politics and archaeology are at best awkward partners paired up only when necessary, but the great thing about archaeology and anthropology is that they implicitly depend on inter-disciplinary research projects across national borders, continents and cultures.  There are success stories of how well archaeology has been implemented in national and political guidelines (the UK for instance has a strict and often well observed set of heritage and archaeological guidelines for developers) but, for this post at least, it is necessary to highlight how government obstructions and human remains are often used as political weapons in modern contexts.

(1) 04/08/13 update: Latest news reveal Mugabe and Zanu-PF have indeed won the election.

(2) 07/08/13 update: According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Cabinet has agreed to let USF researchers exhume the individuals at the Dozier reform school.  This will mean that living families and relatives of individuals who died at the school could finally get some answers and evidence on individuals who were buried at the school.  Excavations will start later this month.

(3) 01/09/13 update: The Guardian and other news sources have reported the first details of the excavation at the Dozier reform school, with finds already including funerary artefacts such as coffin fittings and human skeletal material.

(4) 07/08/14 update: Positive identification of some of the victims of the Dozier reform school in Florida has now been announced.  Strange Remains has an update detailing the use of DNA from victims families in the positive identification of skeletons that have been excavated from clandestine burials dating to the 1940’s.  Distressingly there may be further burials located within the Dozier reform school grounds.

(5) 04/10/14 update: The positive identification of two further victims of the Dozier reform school, in the panhandle of Florida, have been announced.  Strange Remains has an update on the identification of two of the boys found in graves at school by anthropologists at the University of South Florida, highlighting the abuse and neglect that was unchecked at the reform school.

(6) 01/012/15 updated: I have mistakenly referred to the incorrect burial ground for Spitalfields, please see the informed comments from CH below.  The post will be updated shortly to reflect the correct London post-medieval burial ground discussed.


Amnesty International. 2011. Zimbabwe: Mass Graves Must Be Exhumed by Forensic Experts. Amnesty International Press Release.

Elders, J. et al. 2010. Archaeology and Burial Vaults: Guidance Notes for Churches. Council for British Archaeology: York.

Hennig, K. 2012. Searching For Answers. University of Southern Florida: Tampa.

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

Pethen, H. 2010. Christchurch Spitalfields CE Primary School, Commercial Street, London E1: Historic Environment Assessment. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Bioarchaeology on Reddit

14 Mar

It has been fairly quiet here on this site as of late, but rest assured I will starting posting more frequently soon.  In other interactive news there is a new Reddit sub forum entitled ‘Bioarchaeology‘, where news and information for various bone and archaeological topics can be discussed, together with relevant links to interesting articles and news.  I was alerted to this site from a generous reader of this blog, and I look forward to adding my own information to the Reddit site.  It is worth a look, and heavily encouraged to comment or post news yourself.  It is the perfect place to ask any burning questions interested or intrigued readers have about bodies and bones!

My current favourite Reddit link is this article on bodily decomposition, by Arpad A. Vass.  It caught my attention as it succinctly describes the various conditions (such as autolysis and the stages of putrefaction) that lead to the decay of flesh and bone of a human body after death.

As ever, if you are an interested reader of this blog then please feel free to ask any questions on any of the posts in either the comments section or via email correspondence (see About the Author tab).

Guest Blog: Photography vs Laser Scanning in Forensic Archaeology & CSI Contexts by Dave Errickson.

21 Oct

Dave Errickson is a doctoral candidate at Teesside University, where he is building upon his experience and research gained into the 3D visualization of osteological material during his Masters undertaken at the University of Bradford.  His current research focuses on the use of digital recording methods using 3D scanning and laser scanning in a forensic medicolegal framework.  A practising archaeologist, he often works for Tees Archaeology as well as conducting his own original research, alongside taking part in various excavations and surveys around the country.

In forensics the current method for recording information is with digital and film photography.

Photography is cheap once the camera has been purchased, reliable and almost instant (photos can now be developed within minutes rather than days).  Photography has also been used for decades and has become refined.

Photography captures a two dimensional (2D) image of a specific object or scene.  This however poses a problem. When recording a three dimensional (3D) image, the photograph loses the third dimension and compresses the actual image into 2D form.  This loss of dimension in forensics is critical.  For example, a photograph of a body which has been dismembered may lose details that in turn might stop a suspect being committed to jail for a crime carried out.

With such a high profile that photography has, it is unclear where the next method of improvement is or more so, where it is going to come from.

Figure 1. Photograph of a dismembered sheep bone with cut marks, with a scale for size. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Although it may not be known by many people, the new technology has arrived.  This is a method which has been tried within fields close to forensics such as palaeontologyarchaeology and anthropology.  This new method allows the creation of a three 3D scene, therefore minimising the loss of evidence after capture.  This new technology is laser scanning.

My name is David Errickson, studying Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation within the University of Bradford. I am currently working on my dissertation for my Masters of Science award.

For this, I am looking at cut marks found upon bone created after the body has been dismembered.  Using traditional methods such as photography, I am recovering saw marks, tool type, direction of stroke, change of stroke direction and other diagnostic features hacksaws leave upon the bone.  I am then using the novel technique, laser scanning to do the same.

The FARO Laser Scanner, originally used within the fields of aerospace, automotive, metal fabrication and moulding, has the potential to show the details for both the macro and the microscopic detail left on bone that the standard photographic techniques find difficult to recover.

Figure 2. 3D model rendered of the bone after scanning digitally. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Reconstruction of the events leading to a crime is crucial.  The FARO Laser Scanner may accurately and quickly record evidence for further digital forensic analysis.  It also provides a non-contact bone reconstruction that can be displayed and enhanced with software.  This is accomplished without damaging or cross contaminating the evidence for a court environment.  This may include parry marks or defense wounds that may distinguish how a victim was attacked or killed.  This data can ultimately be taken and reconstructed after the recording of evidence in a crime scene.  It then can be placed into a virtual environment that can be displayed to help with the interpretation of events.

Figure 3. The two changes in direction that has been made by the saw during dismemberment on a animal bone. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Both techniques will be utilised and compared to see where in forensics the laser scanning will fit.  The results may show that laser scanning soon, will be the method of choice for recording crime scenes.

Other laser scanning equipment used within this research includes the OLS 3000 (LEXT Generation technology) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The  following are some images taken with these apparatus.

Figure 4. Scanning Electron Micropscope (SEM) image recovery of the striations from a dismembered bone (left) and OLS (right). Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Figure 5. Photograph of blue paint residues within a cut mark on the bone caused by a blade.  The fine photograph highlights the ingrained paint residue and can be used as evidence if a blade is found with similar residues. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Figure 6. A colour laser scanned image of the paint (notice the individual striations and saw slippage) and black laser scan of the paint residue in the cutmark on the bone.  Image credit: Dave Errickson.

In conjunction with this research I have taken it a step further. Once the recording has been completed, the bones will be left to Mother Nature and her natural processes.  I would like to know whether it is possible to recover tool marks from bone after they have been affected by the climate.  This would do two things.  First, it may then become possible to convict a suspect after a number of years from previously made cut marks.  Secondly, diagnostic features recovered from the bone after weathering has taken place can be recorded.

This information will then be able to help the expert witness in a court of law.  This means the expert witness could determine the difference between cut marks and other marks which may have been created by weathering or scavenging.  This re enforces the value of evidence, allowing no room for it being made inadmissible.

For any questions, please feel free to email me:

Daveerrickson at

NB: Please be aware that the images are copyrighted and are used with the permission of Dave Errickson here on this site.

Further Information

  • Keep up to date with new visualization advances in anthropology at the Teesside University blog site here.


Errickson, D., Thompson, T. J. U. & Rankin, B. W. J. 2014. The Application of 3D Visualization of Osteological Trauma for the Courtroom: A Critical Review. Journal of Forensic Radiology and Imaging. 2 (3): 132.137.

Skeletal Series Part 7: The Human Arm

30 May

In this post we shall focus on the main bones located in the arm.  They are the Humerus, Radius & Ulna.  The previous post on the shoulder elements (Scapula & Clavicle) can be found here.  It should be noted that the bones discussed  in this post, known as the forelimb, are the homologs to the bones in the leg, the hind limb.

The Human Arm, And The Bones Under Discussion

Articulation of arm with the distal humerus and proximal radius and ulna making the elbow joint (Image credit: Wikipedia 2011).


As noted in previous Skeletal Series posts care should be taken with excavating human remains, and the maxim that ‘context is everything’ should be well noted with detailed plans of the in-situ remains made.  It is likely that some damage will have occurred to the smaller ulna and radius as they are more fragile then the larger and denser humerus bone.  A record of the condition of the bones should be made, alongside what contextual information is available (Mays 1999, White & Folkens 2005).

Arm Anatomy & Function

The humerus articulates proximally with the scapula and clavicle, as discussed in the last entry (See diagram below).  The distal humerus articulates with the proximal radius and ulna head.  This articulation makes up the elbow, which will be discussed in detail below.  At the distal end of the radius and ulna the carpals are located, which make up the wrist.  These, alongside the other elements in the hand, will be discussed in the next Skeletal Series post.

The individual brachium and antebrachium skeletal elements and major skeletal landmarks, as seen in articulation with the full limb (image credit: Wikipedia 2011).

The function of the forelimb is to provide a rigid limb to help hold, grab and move surfaces and objects.  The shoulder girdle and arm bones have moved away from our evolutionary history of weight-bearing limbs, and have become essential in helping humans to manipulate and move objects with astounding dexterity (Jurmain et al 2011).

Elbow Joint

The elbow joint (image credit: CK-12).

This joint in particular is important to understand as it is a key hinge joint.  The diagram below helps to mark out the distal humerus with the proximal radius and ulna in articulation.  The elbow is one of the strongest points of the body in terms of bone hitting strength.  The two main movements of the elbow are flexion and extension of the humerus and ulna, alongside the pronation of the radius and ulna in turning the arm over (White & Folkens 2005).  The joint itself has a large synovial membrane that protects the articulation points of the bone, whilst the main muscles involved are the Brachialis & Brachiaoradialus (at the anterior side) and the Triceps Brachii & Aconaeus towards the posterior side.  The lateral and medial muscles are the Supinator and Extensor muscles, alongside the Flexor muscles and Flexor Carpi Ulnaris muscles (White & Folkens 2005, but also here).

Anterior elbow joint in articulation, highlighting the major skeletal landmarks of the three bones that make up the joint. Image credit: here.

The Humerus

The humerus is the largest bone in the upper body, and ‘compromises of a proximal end with a round articular head, a shaft, an irregular distal end’ (White & Folkens 2005: 203).  It articulates with the Glenoid cavity (or fossa) of the scapula, and as mentioned, the proximal radius and ulna at the distal end.  The humerus head faces medially, whilst the surgical (or anatomical) neck is the groove that encircles the head for the attachment of the joint capsule (White & Folkens: 203-4).  Both the Greater and Lesser Tubercle are muscle attachment eminences that help move and rotate the upper arm.  On the Greater tubercle (the more posterior and large of the tubercles) rugosities for the insertion of the rotator cuff muscles are round, which help in rotation and adduction and abduction of the arm (White & Folkens 2005).

Main skeletal landmarks of the humerus (click to enlarge). Image credit: Google 2011.

The Shaft of the humerus is variably triangular in section, going from more cylindrical at its proximal end to more triangular in shape towards the distal end (Larsen 1997).  The Deltoid tuberosity is an important feature located on the lateral side of the shaft.  It is the insertion site of the deltoideus muscle, and is recognised by its roughened appearance.  Towards the distal end of the humerus we have several key features that are easily identifiable in recognising this as an upper limb element.

The Olecrannon Fossa is the largest of three hollows located posteriorly at the distal end, and accommodates the olecrannon process of the ulna during forearm extension.  The Capitulum is the rounded eminence that forms the lateral portion of the distal humeral surface, and it articulates with the head of the radius (White & Folkens 2005: 211).  The Lateral and Medial Epicondyle are the non articulating projections of bone, the medial is more prominent than the lateral epicondyle.

The humerus is relatively easy to recognise by the certain features picked out above, but parts can be confused with the tibia and femur.  With the femur, the head has a distinct depression called the Fovea Capitis whilst the humerus lacks this feature (Mays 1999).  The humeral shaft is smaller and less triangular than the tibial shaft.  When siding remember that the olecrannon fossa is posterior and the medial epicondyle is larger, and the humeral head faces medially.  The deltoid tuberosity is found laterally (White & Folkens 2005: 214).

The Ulna

The Ulna is the longest and thinnest bone of the forearm, and articulates proximally with trochlea of the humerus and head of the radius.  Distally, it articulates with the ulnar notch of the radius and an articular disk that separates it from the carpals.  The Olecrannon of the ulna is located on the most proximal part of the ulna; it is the insertion point for triceps brachii muscle.  The Trochlea Notch articulates with the trochlea articular surface of the humerus.  The Coronoid Process is the ‘anterior beak shaped projection at the base of the semilunar notch’ (White & Fokens 2005: 219).  The Radial Notch  is the small articular surface for the radius, and is located along the lateral side of the coronoid process.  The Radial Articulation (Ulna Head)  is the distal, lateral round articulation that conforms to the ulna notch on the radius.  The distal and proximal ends of the ulna are fairly distinctive and indicative of the element, however as White & Folkens (2005) and May (1999) point out, the shafts could be mistaken for radial or fibular shafts.

The ulna and the radius and their associated skeletal landmarks, click to enlarge. Image credit: Wikipedia 2011.

The Radius

The radius is a relatively small bone and shortest of the three in the forelimb.  Its name was gained for the action it goes through as the ‘turning movement about the capitulum of the humerus’ (White & Folkens 2005: 214).  At the proximal end it articulates with the humerus and medially with the ulna on both proximal and distal ends, whilst also distally it articulates with two carpal bones of the wrist.

The Head is a round articular structure at the proximal end of the radius, and as stated above articulates with both the humerus and ulna.  The Neck is a slender segment between the head and the radial tuberosity.  The Radial Tuberosity is a blunt rugged structure on the anteromedial site of the proximal radius that marks the insertion for the biceps brachii muscle (Mays 1999).  The  Styloid Process is a sharp projection located on the lateral side of the distal radius whilst the Ulnar Notch is a concave articular hollow on the medial corner of the distal radius.

Discussion: Wrist Fracture

Colle’s fracture is a break at the distal end of the radius and ulna that results in a ‘dinner fork deformity‘ with dorsal angulation, and displacement of the fracture with radial angulation.  The counterpart to this is Smith’s fracture which is the same but the fracture is displaced in the opposite direction, ie palmar (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 96).

Smiths fracture highlighting the displacement of the distal radius. Image credit: Wikipedia 2011.

These type of fractures often occur because of trips or falls onto outstretched hands, as an automatic safety device by the body.  In modern contexts they also happen in a variety of sport environments.  These types of breaks are often easy to treat with splints and plaster casts, although they sometimes require surgery to correct the breaks and/or angles.  The patients can often be left with a visible deformity, but likely without any pain whatsoever (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 96).  In archaeological examples these type of fractures can be found in any number of contexts or cultures.  It is important to note that, as Larsen (1997) says, many human cultures’ skeletal series often exhibit these breaks, and it can shed light into pathways of differing lifestyles.  Larsen also notes that whilst there is a large osteological literature on injuries in comparison to more population based studies which would help to highlight inferences on accidents and conflict in both historic and prehistoric societies (1997: 109).

Further Information


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.

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

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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