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Interview with Lauren McIntyre: Handful of Bones

24 Mar

Dr Lauren McIntyre is an osteoarchaeologist based in Sheffield, England.  Having recently completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield on analysing the Romano-British human population of York, she is currently working as a project officer and osteoarchaeologist for Elmet Archaeology.  Volunteers for Elmet’s ongoing projects are welcome and Lauren can be contacted at l.mcintyre at for further information.  As well as her fascination for all things archaeology and bone related, Lauren has a particular passion for horror films and can often be found at Sheffield’s own Celluloid Screams film festival.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Lauren, welcome and thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  For those that don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, please could tell us a little bit about yourself and your archaeological research?

Lauren McIntyre: Hi David, it’s nice to be asked!  OK, so I finished my undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield in 2004.  I returned there to do an MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in 2005.  I started my PhD there in 2010, which I’ve just completed.  I’ve spent the time between completing degree courses working as a professional field archaeologist and osteoarchaeologist.  I’ve worked for a number of commercial field units such as ARCUS, Mike Griffiths and Associates and On-Site Archaeology, and I’ve also done a lot of work supervising and teaching on student fieldschools and community archaeological projects.

I got my osteological “big break” as it were with On-Site Archaeology in 2008.  I’d already worked as field staff of their excavation of the medieval All Saints Fishergate cemetery the previous year.  This was right at the beginning of all the economic problems in the UK, and there were problems with the developer who owned the site and trying to establish a budget for post-excavation analysis of the vast quantity of human skeletal remains that we’d already removed from the site.  I helped put together a funding bid to the AHRC for post-excavation osteological analysis with Andrew Chamberlain (then University of Sheffield, now University of Manchester).

Lauren at Rothwell.

Lauren analysing some of the crania of the  charnel material at the medieval Rothwell crypt in Northampton, England.

Fortunately we won it, so I spent a year analysing about 750 Roman, medieval and post-medieval skeletons.  We’d had a big surprise on the site in that as well as the medieval cemetery, we also found ten post-medieval mass graves that no-one knew existed.  Research showed that they might have been Parliamentarian soldiers killed by infectious disease during the 1644 siege of York.  So as well as the osteological report we did an article for Current Archaeology, a (rather ill-fated) TV programme for the BBC and a ton of other media output.

Since I finished writing up the Fishergate assemblage, I suppose my next big move was conducting and completing my PhD.  Again, I was funded by the AHRC to conduct a comprehensive analysis of all the Roman skeletal material from York.  My aim was to reconstruct the population in terms of size and composition, diet and health status.  I collected data for nearly 800 individuals, either by using data from modern osteological reports or analysing the bones myself.  It was a really tough job, but I’m pleased with the results!

I finally had my PhD signed off in February this year, and I’m now working for Elmet Archaeological Services, organising their conference and workshops series, and putting together funding proposals for new osteological projects.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you have studied a large number of individuals in some pretty interesting assemblages!  How important has it been that you have had both the academic experience and the professional field experience of excavating and studying human skeletal material?

Lauren:  I think it’s very important to get both.  There are plenty of researchers (and not just in osteology) who go straight through University from one degree to the next, and never go out in the field to get excavation experience.  I’ve even heard people saying that they don’t want to try excavation because they don’t think it’s relevant to their work!

The long and short of it is that yes, academic work and experience is important, and helps you learn to construct a sound research design, formulate research questions, learn the methodologies and so on.  But working in the field, even for just a few weeks, makes you learn about the process by which remains are dealt with before they get to the lab, and also helps you to understand how important the other site data is to any project you may be working on.

Researchers sometimes have a habit of getting stuck in their own tiny niche, and forget that much of the work they’re doing may be rendered completely pointless if they don’t consider other information from the site that will help both interpret and put their own work in context.  I think working in the field is highly beneficial to anyone who wants to work as an archaeological specialist, and also gives you a healthy appreciation and respect for the field archaeologists without whom specialists would have no material to work on!

TBOMIndeed, I have to agree with you on the benefit of working in the archaeological field if you can.  Just to take a quick step back to the basics – what was it that made you want to study human skeletal remains?  What were your inspirations, and has it been anything you thought it may have been like?

Lauren:  I’d never really thought about taking on an archaeological specialism – I always intended to stick with field archaeology.  I never even studied osteology during my undergraduate degree!  I had done some work on prehistoric funerary practices (my undergraduate dissertation was supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, investigating post-mortem treatment of the dead in Bronze Age Britain), but nothing directly involving human bones.

Then, when I was working for ARCUS (University of Sheffield’s commercial field unit), I got asked if I’d mind working on the Sheffield Cathedral cemetery excavation for a week because they were short staffed.  I said yes, and I’m so glad I did.  I totally fell in love with human skeletons!

I think the thing that gets me most is how amazing the human body is – how much we can learn from just the bones, how much stress the skeleton can put up with, and how it responds to different stimuli.  Some of the pathological specimens I’ve seen are absolutely incredible – in this age of sophisticated medicine, we don’t often encounter gross pathological cases, but looking at archaeological examples you can get an idea of just what the human body can cope with if it needs to.


Lauren working on an archaeological site in England. The field archaeologist has to work in all weather conditions, often where wet mud is a perennial friend.

There are some really inspirational, hard working people in human osteology, who always work to a very high standard.  Charlotte Roberts in particular is a great researcher, who has conducted some invaluable work in this field.  Malin Holst is another researcher who works really hard and has produced some great work.  I think Jo Appleby has done exceptionally well with the Richard III study.  Work produced to such a high standard continually motivates me to improve myself and become a better researcher.

It can be very competitive working in human osteology, because there are so many talented osteologists and only a limited amount of new finds or jobs in osteology every year.  I didn’t really expect it to be such a competitive field when I first got into it – but you soon learn!  Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to work on some great material, so it just goes to show that if you continue to work hard, you can maintain a career in this subject.

TBOM: For readers who are interested, what happens to a human skeleton once you have found an individual on an archaeology site?  How is it processed? 

Lauren: Well, the skeleton will be cleaned, recorded and lifted from the excavation site. Once it is bagged up and labelled, it will be sent either to be cleaned and analysed by the osteologist, or it will be put into storage (in some cases bones will be stored until the excavation has finished so that all the bones can be sent to the osteologist at the same time).

Once the bones have arrived at the lab, they will be carefully cleaned by the osteologist – either dry brushed or washed in water over sieves so that any small fragments will be caught during the washing process. If the bones have been washed they will then be left to dry for a few days. It’s very important that bones are left to dry at room temperature – extreme temperatures (either very warm or very cold) are not good for the bones and can cause them damage. Room temperature should also be monitored if bones are being stored long term, for the same reason.

Once the skeleton had dried it will undergo osteological analysis. Once analysis is complete, it may either return to storage, if the bones are being curated for educational or research purposes. In some cases, the bones will be reburied instead of being stored.

TBOM:  It is well known within the archaeology sector that, at least in the UK, human osteology can be a very competitive field, but I think it is that core attraction of studying the skeletal remains our of past ancestors that draws so many to study the subject of archaeology as a whole.  Would you have any advice for someone starting out in archaeology who perhaps has an interest in pursuing human osteology or bioarchaeology?

Lauren: Absolutely, people are fascinated by the physical remain of our ancestors – despite occasional controversies, human skeletons and mummies and suchlike are usually the most frequently visited archaeological remains in museums.  So it’s unsurprising that it’s such a popular area of study.

I would say that if you’re wanting to pursue a career in human osteology or bioarchaeology, at first have a good think about it – as I said before, it is a very competitive field, and will require a lot of dedication and hard work.  There is a lot of competition for jobs, so you have to be good at what you do.

The next step would be to acquire suitable training   – usually a masters degree in the subject.  You can visit the BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology) website to see a list of institutions that offer degrees in human osteology.  Joining BABAO is also a good step to take, as they set the professional working standards for human osteology in the UK.

As well as a degree, it’s necessary to get a lot of experience in handling and identifying human skeletal remains.  This is where a lot of people tend to fall down – they think that because they have a degree, or maybe attended a couple of courses, that they’re all set to go.  There is no substitute for practical experience.  I usually recommend to students that they start off getting handling experience with helping to do things like bone washing or cleaning.  When you’re processing hundreds of tiny fragments, you soon learn how to identify where in the skeleton they’re from.  You really start to notice the diversity in shape and size of bones in different individuals, as there’s a massive spectrum of normal variation (inexperienced osteologists sometimes tend to interpret features on bones as pathological, when often the features just have a slightly different appearance to what the person has observed before and are actually completely normal).  It also helps to get you used to distinguishing post-mortem and taphonomic damage from genuine osteological features.

Lastly, I’d recommend that you put yourself out there and talk to people!  As with any job, nobody is going to offer you work if you don’t put yourself out there.  So go to conferences, do talks for community, student and any other interested groups and get to know people.  Once people start to know your name you can build yourself a reputation, and hopefully this will lead to work.  Be positive and keep trying!

TBOM: Great answer, I thoroughly agree that you have to continually handle skeletal material to get a feel for natural variation in remains.  To add to your point I also took a short course in animal remains, as I think it is important to be able to identity different species as well.  Speaking of studying skeletal populations, as a part of your PhD research you studied the human skeletal remains of Roman period York  (71AD to 410AD), what was your main project aim and how did you achieve this?

Lauren:  Well, I wanted to see how far I could use skeletal material to reconstruct the population.  More specifically, I wanted to look at population size and composition, diet and health.  This came out of my frustration at the situation in archaeology whereby academic and commercial archaeologists rarely talk to each other.  So there is a lot of skeletal (and other archaeological material) that’s been excavated by commercial archaeologists, but is completely unknown to the academic sector.

At York, there was a load of Roman skeletal material that had come up on commercial excavations, and in particular, a lot of piecemeal burials all scattered around the city.  Nobody had put the information for all these burials together to make a bigger assemblage – instead, anyone examining the population of Roman York tends to rely on one or two larger assemblages (Trentholme Drive and the Railway cemetery).  I wanted to see how our perception of the population would change once I’d factored in the piecemeal burials.

Data collection was difficult, but I’m happy that I got a decent sample, even though I didn’t quite get hold of all the material I wanted.  I got hold of a couple of human skeletal databases from City of York Council, I bugged commercial units for reports, nagged every museum I could think of about their collections, spent a long time trawling online archaeological databases such as ADS and Heritage Gateway.  But it paid off!  I think persistence was the key.


An archaeologist (one Alex Sotheran, founder of Elmet Archaeology) and Lauren’s hand excavating the unexpected discovery of ten mass burials, which dated from the English Civil war period in the 17th century. A lack of trauma wounds on the mostly male individuals in the mass graves could have pointed to the effect of an infectious disease taking its toll on hard pushed soldiers. Read more here.

Once I had the data, it was just a matter of synthesising it in a way that made sense, quantifying everything, applying lots of statistics (I have so many SPSS and Excel documents now it’s not even funny), and then comparing the results to other known data ad evidence to come up with an interpretation.  Being methodical and systematic helps.

Although it’s a very broad study (I had problems with dating because a lot of the material has never been dated specifically, or even approximately – this meant I had to lump everything together instead of doing an earlier/later comparison and examination of change), I did get results that I’m very happy with.  I am the first person to systematically estimate the size of a Romano-British urban population, and it’s looking as though there were more people living there (on average) than we originally thought.  I’d like to have a go at re-estimating population size in a few other towns from the same period, to see how thy compare to York and also to other previous population size estimations.  The demographic composition part of the study pretty much confirmed what people thought anyway, about the military having a huge bearing on the composition of the population, but at least there is now some tangible evidence to base this on!

TBOM: The fact that you are the first person to study the whole Romano-British human population of York highlights, to me, the value that osteoarchaeology can bring to a wider archaeological perspective in understanding past populations, especially in historic periods that we think are already largely well known or studied.  For anyone that is interested in the results of your research, is there a publication being considered or any resources that you can recommend?

Lauren:  Well, I’ve not had much chance to publish anything yet, although that is something I’m thinking about doing.  I have been giving talks to local groups about my results over the last few months, and I’ll also be speaking at this years’s TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) at the University of Reading at the end of March.  Hopefully I’ll do some more conferences over the coming year.  If anyone’s interested in the subject in general, I highly recommend Patrick Ottaway‘s book “Roman York“, which was a crucial text in terms of my background research.  Patrick has spent a lot of his career collating archaeological and historical data from Roman York.  Other than the work I’ve been doing, Patrick’s book is the main source that explores the town as a whole rather than focusing on one site or theme.

TBOM: As you noted at the beginning of this interview you are currently working for Elmet Archaeology, who are noted for having a strong community and educational outreach background.  How has this experience of working for them, helping to organise workshops and a conference for example, differed to the academic, and the purely commercial environments of archaeology, that you had worked in previously?  Do you see them as shades of one colour or as different facets of the same dice?

Lauren:  I think that commercial, academic and community archaeology are very much like different sides of a dice – part of the same whole but distinct from each other.  I love community engagement and outreach, as you get to work with very enthusiastic people who are very passionate about the subject, even if that subject is a minor part of a small scale project.  I think community archaeology (which is definitely on the rise – Elmet were one of the first – maybe even THE first – community archaeology units, being established in 2009) has the potential to combine the best parts of academic and commercial archaeology.  Community projects that are adequately funded enable us to conduct great quality research within a realistic time frame, and using experienced field staff who really know what they’re doing, with the added bonus that the local community can get involved.

Although academic fieldwork projects usually have the luxury of lots of time, they are not always funded well enough to be able to employ supervisors and teachers that can work to commercial field standards, and may have to rely on post-graduate students who themselves have little field experience.


Students excavating an archaeological site in Yorkshire help to uncover an individual found near an Iron Age deposit. You can read the report of the osteological analysis of this individual (SK 1022) by Lauren here.

Commercial archaeology, on the other hand, has a wealth of amazing, talented field archaeologists who are excellent at their jobs, but tendering for contracts between companies often means undercutting each other in terms of time and cost.  The things that suffer as a result are job time frames – so the archaeology may not necessarily get the time, care and attention it deserves in order to met developer deadlines – and field staff wages, which are notoriously low.

I really think that community archaeology is only going to grow in popularity over the next few years – this has certainly been aided by an increase in public awareness and interest in archaeology, as a result of all the television and other media coverage it gets nowadays.  The public are starting to realise that archaeology doesn’t have to involve large scale excavations that dusty old academics do in far away places like Egypt and Greece!  Local archaeology groups and communities are increasingly starting to tell us what they want to know about the areas that they live in, and we as community archaeologists can help them find out.

As a cheeky aside to this, I should also say that if there are any community (or other) group out there that would like to get involved in archaeology in any way, or have archaeological projects that they would like to undertake but don’t know how, get in touch with us at Elmet and we’ll see what we can do for you!

TBOMI never knew that Elmet were possibly the first community archaeology group!  I have taken part in a few local community digs myself and know the value of engaging the local community.  I very much encourage readers to get involved with their local archaeology group.  Thank you very much for agreeing to be interview Lauren, and good luck with your osteological projects and keep up the good work with Elmet archaeology.

Learn More

  • Lauren, with Elmet Archaeology, will also be helping host the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2014 on the 31st of May 2014.  The one day conference will feature a range of papers on a variety of topics in a friendly setting.
  • You can also learn more about the work that Elmet Archaeology conduct with local communities here.  They conduct a broad range of projects taking in everything from exploring WW2 prisoner camps to reminiscence groups, find out more here.

Select Bibliography

McIntyre, L. 2009. SK 1022, Bilham Farm, Brodsworth. Human Bone Assessment Report. Unpublished report. The  University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church RediscoveredCurrent Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. 2011. Osteological Analysis of the Stanwick Skull. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

McIntyre, L. & Harvey, L. 2012. Non-Comformist Chapel Crypt Survey, General Cemetery, Sheffield.  Report No. GCNC01. Unpublished report. The University of Sheffield. (Open Access).

Ottoway, P. 2004. Roman York. Stroud: The History Press.

Ottoway, P. 2013. Roman Yorkshire: People, Culture & Landscape. Stroud: The History Press.