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Guest Post: An Introduction to Artificial Cranial Deformation from the Great Migration Period in Europe by Maja Miljević

17 Oct

Maja Miljević is currently an undergraduate student studying archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.  Her main interest is in physical anthropology, with a research interest in prehistoric archaeology.  Maja has had previous experience of analysing human skeletal remains as a part of a faculty module in the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, at the University of Belgrade, where she took part in the osteological analysis of a number of individuals dating from numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites located in Eastern and Central Serbia.


Intentional or artificial cranial deformation has been long known through human history, even though many articles have been published during recent years which have been focused on more earlier periods of prehistory.  In order to highlight historic cases that I present this short article on intentional cranial deformations from the European Great Migration period (3rd to 8th centuries AD), with a particular focus on the 5th to 6th centuries AD in modern-day Serbia and modern-day Hungary, which highlights the practices of cultural identification in these cultures in this turbulent period.

Intentional Cranial Modifications

Intentional cranial modification has been documented throughout world prehistory and history across a number of distinct geographic areas and cultural groups.  They date back to the Late Paleolithic period (1) at the earliest example so far recovered (Molnar et al. 2014).  The most well-known cranial deformations are those from the Maya culture in modern-day Mexico in the first half of the 2nd millennium AD, various South American prehistoric cultures, and from Ancient Egyptian populations of the 18th dynasty.

Cranial bones can be modified easily in the younger population, since their cranial bones are soft and elastic.  Artificial cranial modification is largely achieved through the binding of the head, using boards, straps, cords or pads (Hakenbeck 2009).  The deforming apparatus is used for a few days up to six months, or sometimes even longer ranging from 3 to 5 years of use.  Cranial deformities of this kind are done as the results of cultural practice and religious beliefs.  The main goal of this practice is to be distinguished from others within the population and to indicate special social status (White et al. 2012; Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).

Intentional Cranial Deformation Types

There are five basic types and areas of artificial cranial deformation (abbreviated to ACD where appropriate) and they often involve the use of boards and pads to achieve their distinctive styles:

a) Lambdoid
b) Occipital
c) Fronto- vertico occipital
d) Parallelo-fronto occipital
e) Annular deformation

As seen above artificial cranial deformations includes various or individual regions of the skull where pressure can be applied, such as the occipital, frontal regions, or both together, the mastoid region, and finally the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occipital bone.  These are largely referred to as tabular deformations.  As well as this there is another type practiced that included bandaging, with wrapping materials, called annular deformation, around the full circumference of the skull, which is also performed in early childhood (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012; Molnar et al. 2014; Ortner, Putschar 1981).

Origin in Barbarian World

Origin of this practice among the barbarian world probably started with Sarmatians, Huns and continued with the Germanic tribes (Alan, Goths, Gepids), as the practice was spread across Europe in the mid to late 1st millennium AD.  The practice of skull modification had probably originated in the central Eurasian steppes in the first century AD and then may have been brought to central Europe with nomadic people and various tribal units (Mrkobrad 1980; Hakenbeck 2009).


An example of ACD in an individual from a Germanic tribe, from the National Museum in Kikinda. Photograph by the author.

Thanks to this culturally mediated osteological difference in the skeletal remains in the Great Migration period, it is a key indicator for understanding the process of said migration during the Middle Ages in the archaeological record in this locality.  Not only did they just bury their dead in either settlements or necropolises, it is also likely proof that they had intentions to stay and live there, as demonstrated by the term from anthropology – acculturation (2); they lived in the same houses, used the same tools, and probably dressed like, or as similar to, the Romans themselves.  As it is seen in an example from the Gradina na Jelici site where three juveniles were buried in two basilicas, all with clear intentional deformations and grave goods that are attributed to Germanic tribes, either the Gepids or Langobards  (also known as the Lombards)(Mилинковић 2010).

In Southeast Serbia there is a necropolis site called Viminacium-Više Groblja, where a total of 94 buried individuals have been excavated and in which 31 individuals exhibit artificial cranial deformation attributed to the Gepids.  The Gepids were closely associated to the Goths due to their cultural similarity.  The reconstruction of a Gepid woman was produced and helped to highlight how her cranium was viewed in life and how her hair was tied with organic material, which probably mimicked the wrappings used to shape her head during infancy (Mилинковић 1998; Микић 1993).


Reconstruction of a Gepid woman demonstrating ACD. The reconstruction is based on an individual from the site of Viminacium, a Roman fort dating from the 1st century AD, located in Serbia which was overran by the Huns in the 5th century AD.  The site was rebuilt by Justinian but destroyed completely by the Slavs in the 6th century AD. Image credit: Mикић 1993.

According to Mikić (1985), two female skulls have also been discovered with artificial cranial deformations dating from the Great Migration period in Pančevo.  Modification was probably already visible in the second decade of life and was produced by using tight wrapping materials around the frontal, parietal and occipital bones of the cranium.  There was not only one wrapping material used that produced an annular deformation to the skull, but it was one used long enough in order to produce a high pressure effect to the skull as seen in the x-ray below.


The first skull, as viewed using an x-ray from a lateral aspect, highlighting the distinctive pressurized cranial deformation. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

As for second skull, modification was carried out a little bit differently in this instance.  Wrapping material was also used, but with a heavy burden, which gave the female individual a distinctive saddle recess as demonstrated on the parietal bones, as seen on the x-ray below.


The second skull ,viewed in a lateral aspect on an x-ray, showing the parietal deformation and the distinctive ‘saddle’ shape of the cranium. Image credit: Mikić 1985.

Besides those sites, another interesting archaeological site where there is evidence of this artificial deformation is in Sirmium, a major Roman and barbarian site in Serbia, where there is one male-assigned skull described with a deformation.  It may be possible that there are more buried individuals that belong to Germanic tribes exhibiting ACD.


The Sirmium individual with the skull indicating that ACD had taken place during their infancy. Each plane shown here highlights the effect the cranial modification had on this individual. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

So, it is obvious that they were a probable leader or someone who wanted to be distinguished from others as chosen by the individuals who carried out the artificial deformation on the infant (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


Reconstruction of a skull from Sirmium, Serbia, described above which highlights the method used to bind the cranial bones in this manner. Sirmium was a populous settlement first founded by Illyrians and Celts and subsequently become a Roman city. In the 5th century AD the city was taken by the Huns and then by the Goths and Gepids. Image credit: Miladinović-Radmilović 2012.

In Hungary itself we have a good example of a number of artificial cranial deformations, 9 individuals exactly who display this feature, from the Hun-Germanic period, which can help us to see that there is no difference in sex as both males and females were a part of this practice or at least subjected to it (Molnar et al. 2014).

From an anthropological point of view we need to ask how bad can the physical effects on the individual be?

We know that brain is a complex organ and that any modification or alternation to either it or the cranium may cause physical and behavioral changes in normal cerebral function.  If there is a high degree of deformation it may have influence in vision, worsening hearing ability or even cause epilepsy, depending on what type of artificial cranial deformation is used (O’Brien et al. 2013; Mrkobrad 1980).  Intentional cranial deformation may disrupt the normal closure time of the cranial sutures or produce minor effects like the increase of wormian bones in the lambdoid suture, which in life would be asymptomatic (Miladinović-Radmilović 2012).


As we have seen in few historic examples from Serbia and Hungary above, this cultural practice did not stop with prehistoric people and cultures as it was carried out across the globe, including during periods of great migrations.  It is interesting that it had a great influence on the barbarian people and their leaders of this period, and that it continued to be practiced after they had conquered their enemy tribes or warring nations.  It may be hypothesized that they still wanted to be seen differently or to be seen as superior both within and outside their own cultural group.  Unfortunately intentional cranial deformations probably stopped in the Balkans with arrival of Avarians, around the 6th century AD, although the practice still continues today within a modern medical environment.


1. Late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period goes back from some 40,000 to 10,000 years before present.

2. Acculturation is cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adopting to or borrowing traits from another culture.


Hakenbeck, S. 2009. ‘Hunnic’ Modified Skulls: Physical Appearance, Identity and the Transformative Nature of Migrations. In Sayer, D. & Williams, H. (eds). Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. 64-80. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. (Open Access).

Mikić, Ž. 1985. Prilog Morfologiji Veštačkih Deformisanih Lobanja iz Perioda Velike Seobe Naroda. Godišnjak centra za Balkanološka ispitivanja. ANUBiH 23, 21. (Open Access).

Mикић, Ж. 1993. Виминацијум-антрополошки преглед групних гробова римског периода (I) и приказ некропола из периода велике сеобе народа (II). Saopštenja XXV. (Open Access).

Miladinović-Radmilović, N. 2012. Artificial Cranial Deformation. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society. 28: 301-312. (Open Access).

Милинковић, М. 1998. Германска племена на Балкану. Археолошки налази из времена сеобе народа. PhD Thesis. Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Милинковић, М. 2010. Градина на Јелици-рановизантијски град и средњовековно насеље. Београд.

Molnar, M., Janos, I., Szucs, L., Szathmary, L. 2014. Artificially Deformed Crania from the Hun-Germanic Period (5th- 6th century AD ) in Northeastern Hungary: Historical and Morphological Analysis. Neurosurg Focus. 36 (4).

Mrkobrad, D. 1980. Arheološki nalazi seobe naroda u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Muzej grada Beograda.

O’Brien, G. T., Peters, R. L., Hines, E. M. 2013. Artificial Cranial Deformation: Potential Implications of Affected Brain Function. Anthropology. 1 (3): 2-6. (Open Access).

Ortner, D. J. & Putschar, W. G. J. 1981. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

White, T. D., Black, M. T. & Folkens, P. A. 2012. Human Osteology (3rd edition). San Diego: Academic Press.

Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

UCL mammal compare humerus taxon

The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.


Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).


The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!

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.