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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.

Guest Post: ‘Glass & Metal’ by Charles Hay

24 Oct

Charles A. Hay is currently aiming towards his next big adventure.  Prior to this he has worked as a field archaeologist throughout England for units such as Wessex Archaeology, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the University of Sheffield.  He also holds an MA in Archaeology from the latter.  His writings, including investigations of philosophy and original short stories, can be found at his Human Friendly site alongside his numerous drawings, musings and photographs.  If you find him in a pub, he will be having a pint of Pendle or a good scotch.  If it is a working day, then a black coffee will do instead!  Charles has previously written for These Bones of Mine with a guest post titled Welcome to Commercial Archaeology: A Biased Introduction.


On a kind and warm day in the valley, the day after the mid-summer festival, the village children – they called themselves The Valley Pack – wandered lazily down the edge of the gently whispering river.  Their minds were slow under the gentle sun, and their sparse, familiar conversation was carried on the languid breeze.

Violet, the Pack leader, breathed deeply, the aroma of life through her lungs joined her to the world and she smiled, mouth closed, at every one of her friends.  She led because she was the oldest, and because her calm, philosophical and compassionate nature reminded them all so readily of the village leader.  That wizened old oak-tree of a man about whom nobody could bring themselves to speak ill, Noah.  Noah the Very, Very, Very Old, the children called him, his name turning into a chanting song.  The name would always raise the most beneficent, grateful smile in him.  Violet fancied herself as a like mind of his, and anyone who knew her would tend to agree, despite only having lived twelve summers and eleven winters.

Their mission today was simply to wander.  The adults were all hungover and bumbling after the festival.  Nobody needed much food that couldn’t be gathered, after the spectacular feast.  The old ones simply wanted to sit and enjoy their laziness, or their rekindled friendships, or their love.  The children had gathered together at sunrise, as they did on the rest-day, and they had followed Violet.  Their relief had been palpable when she had decided to walk the river rather than the ridge.  Walking the ridge made them feel adult and important, like warriors or drawers of maps, but by The Sun, it was tiring.

From the tops of the valley’s ridges, the children could see as far as was possible.  Noah said that the Earth was actually a ball, and that the horizon was not its edge.  When the children challenged him on this he picked up an apple and a seed.  He showed them how the further away from the apple the seed was, the more of the apple that seed could see.  The higher up the mountain you climb, he said, the further you can see over the horizon.  He held the seed at arm’s length from the apple and said that once, Man had seen the whole of Earth, so far away could humans once fly.  Why can’t we fly now, Noah?  At this, he would smile and tell them that sometimes humans lived in times when impossible things happened, and sometimes they didn’t.  This was simply the nature of eternity.  Violet knew, knew humans would fly again.  She had faith.

“Violet! Violet!” Karl splashed towards her from the middle of the shallow river, where he had been fiddling with stones.  She realised she had been watching him without awareness.  It was such a day, where the mind is completely un-preoccupied, makes no knowing straight lines; simply follows its own internal flow.  It took some real effort of will to focus her vision and bring alertness to her face.

“Karl! Karl!” She mocked, with a crooked, sardonic smile that she had been practicing all summer.  Her mother did it when her father attempted to be authoritative and she loved it.  “What is it? Dragonfly bite you too?”

Unusually for Karl, he was unflustered by her ribbing; he did not play up to her role this time.  He simply splashed over to her and slapped something into her waiting hands, the following arc of water made her blink.  It was like a stone but awfully regular.  It was mostly black and rectangular. Its two sides, flat and of equal size, were water-worn, like the fragments of multi-coloured, misty, translucent stone they found that Noah had informed them were made by flying men and called glass.

“It’s man-made,” she said with artificially disinterested certainty to Karl and, passively, to the others.  “It is made of glass, see?” Her blasé attitude however, was a thin veneer, and the longer she inspected the object, the more it tantalised.  Of white, metallic edges.  An indentation at the bottom of one side.  This could not be a tool; what could possibly be crafted with it?  She hit it against a rock.  It felt almost empty.  No; this would break if used for work.  She realised she had been holding it for some time and Karl was looking visibly distressed with impatience to get it back.  “Karl, remind me later, and we’ll take this to Noah, or my mother.”  She handed it back and Karl conspicuously scrutinised the point at which it had impacted the rock.  “What do you think it is, Karl?”

All the children were now staring at them both, fascinated with the object from the river and jealous of Karl’s new-found lieutenancy.

“I think…” he clicked his tongue and looked at the black, rectangular glass thing over and over.  “It could be a jewel? Or part of something else? This could be part of a contraption? A weight or something?”  His eyes implored to Violet, then directly to the object itself.

“I wonder what’s inside it,” said Kyle, who thought in recursive riddles that he often found difficult to communicate.  “It could… do something itself. It might not be a tool. It might be made of tools.”

Violet was patient with Kyle, and her eyes delved into his eyes to let him know that she at least would attempt to comprehend his mind.  He smiled nervously.  The moment was shattered by Dawnlight snorting, “and what would something so small do for anyone Kyle?”

Violet could not resist purpose.  She stood, and marched them back up the valley to home, and the quietly comprehending world of adults.  As they walked along the gently singing stream, the sighs of the breeze through long grass brought to Violet images of people in impeccable grace, regarding their opaque, senseless trinket with total comprehension, and she ached with her whole being to see the world through their eyes and to know it for what it truly was, and what it truly meant.


As it happened, Violet’s mother was strolling slowly with Noah.  Violet and her mother exchanged a small smile, their version of a heartfelt hug.  Noah regarded the squadron of children with mock incredulity, ready to launch into a joke-tirade and inquisition of action and intent.  His humour was instantly transformed into warm wonder though, when Karl presented his find.

“He found it in the river Noah; Mum. Didn’t you Karl?”

“I found it in the river. In the muddy bit beneath the rocks. It doesn’t do anything, we just wanted to… Sorry Violet.”

Violet smiled with affection; said, “it’s your find Karl, you tell them.”

Karl stuttered a bit before asking, “do you know what it is Noah? We wondered if it was a tool of the flying humans you said about, or if it was part of one of their con… con-contraptions. Contraptions.”  His expression flickered between pride and worry that he had used the wrong word.

There was something akin to comprehension on Noah’s face as he looked at the small box.  He murmured, almost totally inaudible, “twice the length of a thumb, made of glass and metal. I wonder if this isn’t some sort of… machine.”  He was talking to himself, in a way that those who knew him were completely accustomed to.  They also knew that to interrupt this vocal thought would result in mild irritation.

“Karl,” Noah said, his expression earnest and honest.  “This is either to fit in a hand or a pocket, but we cannot make use of it. It may have been part of something, as you said, or it may simply have been a good luck charm; a talisman.  It is rather fun simply to look at, isn’t it?  You keep it, young man, it’s yours.”  He gave it back, and Karl clutched it.  The mild disappointment was obvious on his face.

“I’m sorry, young man, you wanted an answer.  Well I’ll tell you this: that little box of yours was somebody’s at sometime.  The things it is made out of are what they made their world out of. Remember, glass and metal.  That’s what that is.  Whilst they kept use of things made of glass and metal, they changed the world for themselves.  They were more powerful than the river or the wind or even the enormous Earth.  With that in your hands, you are one step closer to all that than us.  You hold a fragment of a world in which humans were fearless and infinite.  Treasure it; you are holding history, and hopefully the future as well.”

Karl’s eyes were glassy with wonder now, and his expression did not change even when Noah quietly laughed internally and mussed his wiry hair.  He held the small black rectangle to his heart, not possessively, but as one would a small, tamed animal.

Watching and listening, Violet felt something new within her.  Her gentle fascination gave way to something else. She looked at Karl and his talisman, she felt… Yearning for this thing.  She chided herself for coveting this belonging of her good friend.  She tried to think only kind things, as she had been taught.  She tried to think of Karl’s happiness, and how that increased the happiness of the village.

But she wanted it, she knew.

She needed it.


Ungulates Gnawing: Osteophagia & Bone Modifications

24 Oct

Osteophagia: Osteophagia is the act of ungulates (including giraffes, camels, cattle, etc.) chewing on another species skeletal remains to gain nutrition (particularly minerals such as phosphorus and calcium) that may be lacking in other parts of their largely vegetarian diets.  This includes the chewing of antlers, horns and ivory, as well as skeletal elements.  It is a relatively well documented animal behaviour that occurs across numerous taxa and across continents.


I’ve been meaning to highlight this article by Hutson et al. (2013) for a while as it nicely illustrates the actions of animals in the archaeological record that can sometimes be interpreted, or mistaken, for a human or taphonomic origin.  Hutson et al. (2013) discusses the impact that ostephagia can have on archaeological contexts and carefully identifies the differences between large and small ungulate osteophagia-based actions.  Taking 12 individual and observed case studies of osteophagia examples recovered from modern field contexts in Australia, North America and Africa, the study highlights the different styles of bone modifications made by each species to help identify the often distinct bone modifications that they leave in their wake.  The case studies include examples of wildebeest (C. taurinus) bones having been gnawed by giraffes, elephant (Loxodonta africana) ivory gnawed by kudu or sable antelope, and a camel (C. dromedarius) radius fragment having been gnawed by a camel.

Hutson et al. (2013: 4140) notes that ‘previous studies have shown that ungulates gnaw both cortical and cancellous bone and elements in almost any state, from fresh to completely bleached, desiccated, and weathered”.  The favoured bones to gnaw during scavenging among ungulates are elements of the long bones, vertebrae, scapulae, skulls and ribs, and, if munching on long bones, the larger ungulates often position the axis of the bone ‘like a cigar held in a human mouth’ (Hutson 2013: 4140).

ostephagia 111 hutson etal13

This diagram shows porcupine gnawed B. taurus limb elements, where a) is the right tibia and b) is the left femur. Notice the what look like long striations, which are in fact gnawing lines (click to enlarge). Image credit: Fig 8 from Hutson et al. 2013: 4147.

Importantly, the authors differentiate the classes of ostephagia-based bone damage caused by large ungulates and compare it to the typical bone damage caused by carnivores and other primarily meat-eating scavengers, such as lions, panthers and tigers.  This comparative approach takes into account 10 separate features of bone damage often found on gnawed skeletal remains (including evidence of prey selection, bone selection, bone state, bone transport, tooth mark type and general morphology amongst others) and highlights the varied differences between the two behaviours of ungulates and carnivores (Hutson et al. 2013: 4148).  Perhaps of primary importance in this article is that fact that tooth morphology varies according to species and purpose, as such the authors explicitly highlight that, alongside this, the age of the individual animal, and thus the state of its teeth, gnawing the bone can affect the patterning expected (Hutson et al. 2013: 4147).

ostephagia hutson etal13

This rib was found at the fringe of a scatter of skeletal elements from one individual. Showing the distinctive forking and crushing of ungulate gnawing, this B. taurus rib was likely gnawed by cattle whilst still relatively fresh. Image credit: Fig 6. in Hutson et al. 2013: 4145.

Of course care should always be taken in the recording of gnawing evidence, as teeth in both humans and non-humans can wear down and gouging styles can vary.  However, the distinguishing marks made between ungulates during the act of osteophagia and the selectivity of active carnivores and scavengers is vital for the archaeologist as it can infer on the context of the gnawed skeletal remains.  This can help identify the fauna previously present on-site and the actions that took place based on replicating the known evidence.  The analysis of faunal bones at archaeological and palaeoanthropological sites should, of course, be used in conjunction with other taphonomy techniques to fully understand site formation.

All in all, this is an interesting paper that adds real depth to the taphonomic literature and should be of note to both archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists in interpreting the actions of both humans and non-humans during site formation.

Update 26/10/14

Osteophagia is just one method that mammals use to gain extra nutrients in their diet, another method is mineral lick.  As with osteophagia it has long been noted that animals will exploit their environments by eating or otherwise digesting natural soils, clays and rocks to gain elements (particularly salt) that may be missing in nutrient poor ecosystems (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006).  Mineral lick is particularly prevalent among giraffes, elephants, moose, cattle and tapirs (and other mammals) as a way to increase the amounts of minerals, such as potassium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, and sodium, in their diets.  Although the knowledge of so-called salt caves and their origin with animal behaviour is well know, it is thought that they are under-estimated in current estimates of their prevalence (Lundquist & Varnedoe Jr 2006: 18).  As such these natural landscape features should also be taken into account when understanding the formation and duration of palaeoanthropological and archaeological sites.


Hutson, J. M., Burke, C. C. & Haynes, G. 2013. Osteophagia and Bone Modifications by Giraffe and Other Large Ungulates. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4139-4149.

Lundquist, C. A. & Varnedoe Jr, W. W. 2006. Salt Ingestion Caves. International Journal of Speleology. 35 (1): 13-18. (Open Access).

Osteological and Forensic Books of Interest

23 Sep

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

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

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

tbom booksss 2

Books covers of the below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tbom booksss

Book covers of the above.


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

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

Learn From One Another

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


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

What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.


A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.


Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.

A Right To Bear Arms: A Traumatically Introduced Ursus Phalanx

31 May

Whilst browsing a recent edition of the International Journal of Palaeopathology I came across this article by Richards et al. (2013) titled ‘Bear Phalanx Traumatically Introduced Into A Living Human: Prehistoric Evidence‘; it is an eye-catching title I am sure you will agree!  Although it is common for skeletal remains to display traumatically introduced pathologies (see Roberts & Manchester 2010 and Waldron 2009), it is rare for palaeopathological case studies to document traumatically inserted foreign objects into a human skeleton, much less so to find a bear claw crushed into a human arm.  Yet this is exactly the case that Richards et al. (2013) document in a female skeleton dating from a Middle Period (500BC-300AD) Prehistoric Californian shellmound site called Ellis Island.

The individual, PHMA 12-2387, was found during archaeological excavations conducted in1906-1907 of the shellmounds that formerly lined the San Francisco Bay area, and the excavation recovered a total of 160 burials from the highly stratified shellmound middens (Richards et al. 2013: 48).  The shellmounds along the San Francisco Bay were inhabited by hunter-gatherers during the Middle Period, who focused their efforts on the near shore marine rich resources.  Interestingly the habitation period of the area at and around Ellis Island reflects occupation, abandonment and re-occupation over a 2000 year long span.  Following the osteological analysis of the nearly complete skeletal remains of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the skeleton likely represented an adult female (biological sex based on pelvic features) aged between 30-40 years old (based on dental eruption and wear stage, epiphyseal and sutural closure, pubic symphysis and joint  surface morphology) at the time of death, who was buried supine with both her upper and lower limbs flexed (Richards et al. 2013: 49).

Now here is the interesting part.  Following the qualitative analysis of the normal ranges of joint and bone surface morphology of other shellmound individuals (N=159) and the comparison of the careful analysis of CT scans taken of the arms of PHMA 12-2387, it was concluded that the upper limbs bones of PHMA 12-2387 were large and strongly muscled, which were representative of a middle aged female who had suffered ‘traumatic injury that involved the left cubital fossa region, both forearms, and the right shoulder girdle’ (Richards et al. 2013: 50).  The right upper limb displays a bending fracture in the mid shaft of the ulna, which was complicated by the non-union of the break during the healing process.  Found within the left humerus cubital fossa was a Ursus (bear) phalanx, which had been driven in by a likely crushing trauma to a depth of 5 to 7mm into the dense cortex of the humeral shaft (See Figure 1).


The CT scans of the upper limbs of PHMA 12-2387, where A represents varying views of both remaining limbs, and B shows the traumatically fractured right ulna and crushing injury of left cubital fossa of the humerus (See Richards et al. 2013: 50 for further information).

The injuries to this individual undoubtedly affected her movement.  The right upper limb would have suffered from problems with restricted range of the elbow joint, and restricted pronation and supination of the forearm due to the non-union fracture, whilst the trauma of the phalanx fractured through olecranon process and likely severed the m. triceps brachii, a major forearm extensor.  This likely resulted ‘in unopposed forearm flexion’, although pronation and supination of the forearm was ‘less affected’, with the bone material adapting to, and reflecting, the changes (Richards et al. 2013: 51).  The Ursus phalanx became fused within the injury of PHMA 12-2387’s left arm, and remained there until her death.

Although hypothetical situations are documented by Richards et al. in a  trauma reconstruction, it is likely thought that the upper limb injuries occurred at the same time as each other, and that the Ursus phalanx represented a part of a decoration (possibly a necklace) worn by the individual in question.  The mechanism of the introduction of the phalanx is likely to have been a devastating crushing injury which rammed the phalanx into the bone, as documented by the surrounding tissue damage.  Richards et al. 2013 (52-53) suggest that the individual was wearing a possible necklace of ‘claws’, with the phalanx having a shamanic connotation or reflecting a high status within the Middle Period horizon cultures.  Ethnographic accounts of Central Californian tribes indicate that shamans were ‘an integral part of the political, economic and legal institutions’ (Richards et al. 2013: 52).  A number of scenarios regarding her possible role within a society are postulated, and although no firm conclusion can be made, the case calls for a unique perspective for a personal osteobiography during the Californian prehistoric period.

Importantly this case study of this unfortunate individual highlights the coming together of the historical, the ethnographic, the osteological and the anatomical.  Whilst the hypothetical situation of the cause of the trauma can be discussed and postulated, it nevertheless stimulates a worthwhile discussion on the role of shamanistic behaviour in prehistoric California and it adds to the importance of understanding the injuries on the living individual, a living osteobiography.  It is an important article and well worth the full read.


Richards, G., Ojeda, H., Jabbour, R., Ibarra, C., & Horton, C. (2013). Bear phalanx traumatically introduced into a living human: Prehistoric evidence International Journal of Paleopathology, 3 (1), 48-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2013.01.001

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

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

Skeletal Series Part 9: The Human Hip

22 Jan
In this post I shall be discussing and looking at the three main elements that make up the human pelvis (or the pelvic girdle, a homology to the shoulder girdle).  The bones that make up the pelvis are the Ischium, Ilium & the Pubis.  The Sacrum has been discussed in an earlier post on the spine.  During the development of the hip, these three elements remain singular, fusing together during adolescence to become one single unit during early maturity to become the Os Coxa (White & Folkens 2005: 246).

The main elements in the human hip, and as a whole Referred to as the Os Coxa. NB acetabulum faces laterally.

The hip is a fantastic wealth of skeletal knowledge.  The two most basic and fundamental traits of the person, the age and biological sex of the individual, can be found in articles by Brooks & Suchey (1990) and by Patriquin et al. (2005), which both use morphological features of the pelvis to estimate sex and age of the individual under study.  Many muscles also insert and attach along the borders, rims and edges of the pelvis, especially anchoring those that are key in movement during bipedal locomotion (Schwartz 2007: 147).  The hip, and its component parts, are most distinctive in shape and size.  Odd looking, hard to figure out at first, and looking like nothing else (a top heavy hourglass is one view), the Os Coxa can can be hard to identify and orientate, especially in smaller fragments.

Juvenile ilium (top), ischium (bottom right) and pubis (bottom left) (Image credit: Bone Clones 2006).

Unfortunately during excavation, the first thing that the pick ax, spade or trowel is likely to hit is the most anterior part of the hip, the pubic symphysis, as in most human burials the body lies prone and face up, in a supine burial (see Brothwell: 3 for other burial positions).  This can lead to destruction of this joint, which can lead to loss of information on age and sex of the individual.  However, during normal inhumation excavation the grave cut can be clearly distinguished, and a pattern of working from top to bottom or bottom to top can help limit the amount of damage during excavation (White & Folkens 2005).

The author excavating a Medieval skeleton in Germany in 2011. Note the damaged anterior aspect of the Pubic Symphysis, which is outlined in red.

Pelvic Anatomy and Elements:
The acetabulum  makes up the socket to receive the head of the femur (thigh), and is equally made up of a portion of the three elements of the hip which fuse during early adolescence.  This joint is necessarily much more stable then the non-weight bearing shoulder joint- it is much deeper, has the ligamentum teres (a ligament that attaches to the femoral head and the hip) and is covered by much stronger and denser musculature (White & Folkens 2005: 246).  As the main weight bearing joint, the bone is also much denser with thicker cortical bone.
The ilium is the largest of the three parts of the os coxa, and sits superiorly above the ischium and pubis, and it is often described as ‘blade like’ (Schwartz 2007: 148) as it is a thin but strong plate of curved bone.  On the lateral side of the blade, three gluteal lines (anterior, inferior & posterior) are visible which are the muscle attachment sites for the large gluteal muscles.  The main landmarks along the upper ridge is the iliac crest, which can be felt on yourself, and begins anteriorly with the anterior superior iliac spine and ends in the posterior superior iliac spine (White & Folkens 2005: 247).  The auricular surface of the medial ilium articulates with the sacrum (and is a very useful age estimator- Buckberry & Chamberlain 2002).  The greater sciatic notch is also generally a good indicator of the biological sex of the individual.

Anatomical landmarks on the right hip (Image credit: Pearson Education 2010).

The ischium is the butt bone, literally the bone which takes the weight whilst we are sitting on a chair!  The key features of this element of the hip is that a lot of muscles attach to the posterior ischial tuberosity.  The ischial tuberosity muscle attachments include the origins of the hamstring muscles (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, adductor magnus & biceps femoris) (White & Folkens 2005).  Alongside the pubic bone, the ischium also includes the obturator foramen, a gap (in life covered by a membrane) where a number of internal gluteal muscles converge and provide stability for the hip.
The pubic bone makes up the anterior part of the hip as a whole and includes a cartilaginous joint, just above the genitalia in living individuals.  The pubic symphysis, as this joint is called, is also a good indicator of biological sex because of the shape below it (the  pubic arch) and also age because of age related changes in the bony surface of the pubic symphysis (Schwartz 2007: 230).  The pubic bone also includes a superior and inferior pubic ramus, literally the corpus of the bone, which help support numerous muscle attachments, namely the adductors (adductor brevislongus & magnus) of the medial compartment of the thigh.

The  major landmarks of the pelvic bones in anatomical position.


For the discussion on the hip we shall talk about septic arthritis (SA).  SA is mostly common in the hip and knee, and rarely presents in the elbow or shoulder.  Although it is rare in the archaeological record, it is nonetheless recorded in a number of examples (i.e. Yukon individuals in the Natural Museum of National History in Washington, US), and it pays to be able to recognise it (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 154).  The condition is fairly uncommon, and the aetiology of SA is when an infection reaches a joint, normally through one of three means- i) the haematogenous route (most common), ii) a penetrating injury or iii) its spread from metaphysis (Marsland & Kapoor 2008).  The bacteria, or germ, normally infects the synovial fluid which may be inflamed from disease or trauma, and ‘proliferation of bacteria cause an inflammatory response by the host with numerous leucocytes migrating into the joint’ (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 136).

Main outcome of septic arthritis (Image credit:

At this point the variety of enzymes and breakdown products that are produced helps to damage the articular cartilage very quickly, and if left will produce permanent damage (Waldron 2009: 89).  The prognosis is good if treated promptly, however in the archaeological record this is quite unlikely due to the high risks of re-infection and complications such as joint destruction, avascular necrosis (mostly at the hip) & the ‘seeding of infection’ to other places (Marsland & Kapoor 2008: 137).  Again, the diagnosis of septic arthritis in the archaeological record is hindered by confusion with similarities to tuberculous infection, and difficulties in diagnosing multiple diseases that may present themselves on any one individual (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 154).  In the hip, the surface and surrounding area (lunate surface) of the acetabulum would be highly damaged, with a rough appearance and feeling as the bony lytic destruction took hold (Waldron 2009).


Brooks, S. & Suchey, J. M. 1990. Skeletal age determination based on the os pubis: a comparison of the Acsádi-Nemeskéri and Suchey-Brooks methods. Human Evolution 5– N.3: 227-238.

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

Buckberry, J.L. & Chamberlain, A.T.  2002.  Age estimation from the auricular surface of the ilium: a revised methodAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology 119: 231-239.

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.

Patriquin, M.L., Steyn, M. & Loth, S.R. 2005.  Metric analysis of sex differences in South African black and white pelvesForensic Science International 147: 119-127.

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

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

Skeletal Series A: The Biological Basis of Bone and Anatomical Directional Terms

28 Feb

The adult human skeleton consists of more than 200 separate bones (often around 206 individual elements) whilst the juvenile skeleton can have over 300 individual elements (predominately in newborn babies) (White & Folkens 2005).

Over time certain bones fuse to others (such as the os coxa or hip bone) to produce stable and protective environments once the soft tissues and the body have fully grown (i.e. the plates of the cranium once the brain has fully grown into it’s adult form).  This occurs in two main stages in the life of a human: during the early years of infancy and a second growth spurt during adolescence.  In life the skeleton can weight from between 12% to 20% of an individual persons weight.  Please click on the below picture to enlarge the diagram of the general skeletal elements found in the human skeleton.

Basic skeletal elements of Homo sapiens (humans).

Basic Role of Skeleton

The skeleton, and individual bones, act as both tissue and as organs (White & Folkens 2005).  Primarily the skeleton acts as a mechanical component for the musculo-skeletal system to allow movement of the body.  The skeleton provides a framework for organ protection and support for the body by helping to anchor muscles, tendons and ligaments; movement is achieved by the bones acting as rigid levers for the muscles to help produce movement (White & Folkens 2005: 31).  Important physiological functions of bone include the production of blood cells; bone can also acts as a storage for calcium and fatty deposits.

Skeletal Anatomy & Structure

Traditionally skeletal elements are classed around 4 main groups which are typically broken down into long bones (femur, tibia etc), short bones (carpals etc), flat bones (scapular etc) and irregular bones (Os coxae).  Bone is mainly consisted of a composite material of Hydroxyapatite (a mineral) and  Collagen (a protein).  It is amongst the strongest of biological materials: able to cope with a variety of high mechanical stress levels including bending and contortion pressures (White & Folkens 2005).

The basic structure of living bone is provided below.  On the outer surface of the bone is a membrane called the Periosteum in which blood vessels and nerves pass whilst the outer bone surface itself is called Cortical bone (otherwise known as compact bone) and the the inner bone is called Trabecular bone (otherwise known as spongy bone, a good shock absorber) (Mays 1999).  In the long bones especially a Medullary Cavity is often present where fat cells can be stored and blood is produced in red marrow (Schwartz 2007).

The basic anatomy of bone highlighting the diaphysis (shaft of bones) and epiphysis (ends of bones)  with the periosteum membrane and medullary cavity highlighted (Source: Wikipedia).

Growth of Bone

The growth of bones in the womb and up until full maturity is directed by two different biological processes.  Endochondral Ossification is a process by which bones are preceded by cartilaginous models.  Ossification in this case is initiated before the birth of the individual in the mother’s womb. Endochondral bone growth is the primary process of bone ossification in the human skeleton (White & Folkens 2005).  Intramembranous Ossification occurs when apposition of tissue within an embryonic connective tissue membrane covering takes place.  However this method of bone ossification is largely limited to the cranial vault of the human skeleton, primarily the frontal and parietal bones (White & Folkens 2005: 46).

Generalized bone growth highlighting the importance of the main ossification centers of bone.  Many bones have one or two primary ossification centers but some have more, depending on the location and shape of the bone.  The growth plates (epiphysis), located at the end of the diaphysis, highlight how the individual bones can grow until full fusion of the individual elements occurs when growth stops, which is usually during late adolescence (Source: Baron 2008).

Fusion of the epiphysis plates to the diaphysis plates mainly occurs in the long bones of the skeleton ( the femora, tibiae, humeri etc) during late adolescence.  It is often used as an age estimator when describing archaeological skeletal material (Mays 1999) as individual elements fuse as different times.  This is the reasons why human juveniles have a greater number of individual skeletal elements compared to the fully mature skeleton of adult individuals.

Anatomical Direction Used in Human Osteology

Anatomical directional terms and planes of reference are used to give precise locations when discussing the human skeleton.  This is so that when using this nomenclature it is obvious to all concerned about what is being talked about; it is used to avoid ambiguity.  Below is a diagram outlining the main terms.

Anatomical Planes (Wikipedia).

Standard anatomical directions used in human anatomy for orientation of elements.

The skeleton is often described of as composing of the appendicular and the axial skeleton.  The appendicular skeleton (126 individual bones) is the locomotor of the body.  The appendicular skeleton includes the elements and joints of the feet, leg and hip bones together with the hand, arm and shoulder bones.  This allows an astonishing array of large and fine movement and functions, although more rotation and general movement is permissible at the shoulder joint because of its structure in comparison to the weight bearing hip and knee joints (Schwartz 2007).  The axial skeleton (composed of 80 individual elements) holds the pelvic girdle, the ribcage, the shoulder girdle and the cranium.  The axial skeleton houses all of the main organs of the body and supports the basic biological function of life as we know it.

Bone Microstructure

Finally, I’ll quickly mention bone microstructure.  The basics of bone microstructure include both Volkmann’s canals (essentially blood vessel routes) and Haversian canals (canals at the centre of the osteon unit containing nerve fibres), basic nutritional and blood supplies for the bone at a microscopic level.  At the micro level, bone is made of and replaced by osteons.  This includes:

Osteocytes: Osteocytes are relatively long lived inert bone cells, they can however perform a function similiar to osteoblasts, but their primary hypothesized role is to monitor the activity of osteoblasts and osteoclasts inside a basic multicellular unit. 

Osteoblasts: Osteoblasts synthesize the production of bone when grouped together as an osteon. 

Osteoclasts: osteoclasts re-absorb bone tissues, a vital process during the maintenance and repairing of healthy bone.

In living persons the bone is covered by the periosteum, a living tissues that acts as a soft tissues from which vessels bringing in and out blood etc moves through (White & Folkens 2005).  Here is a guide depicting variation between human and various animal microstructure, and how to recognise the variations when studying comparative osteology and zooarchaeology.

Bone microstructure in a hypothetical and typical transverse slice of bone.  Not to relational sizes (Source: Wikpedia).

A full list of terms and directions are described here.  As we are in the business of archaeology, the condition and quality of the bone found in such circumstances is dependent on two main processes post burial/depositional, which are Diagenesis and Taphonomic changes.  Diagenesis “is the cumulative physical, chemical and biological environment; these processes will modify an organic object’s original chemical and/or structural properties and will govern its ultimate fate, in terms of preservation or destruction” (Wikipedia 2011).  Taphonomy is the study of decaying and decayed organisms. Thus the “study (of) taphonomic processes(can be used) to determine how plant and animal (as well as human) remains accumulate and differentially preserve within archaeological sites. This is critical to determining whether these remains are associated with human activity. In addition, taphonomic processes may alter biological remains after they are deposited at a site.” (Wikipedia 2011).

A discussion of tooth anatomy will follow in the next week or so, as teeth are a distinct part of our skeletal body.  Various elements of the skeleton, i.e. the vertebral column, will be discussed in separate posts for a more in depth study.  For the moment it is important to grasp the fundamentals.  Terminology regarding subject key words (terms such as ‘Bioarchaeology’ or ‘Physical Anthropology’) will be discussed in the following post to decide what exactly they mean, and where they came from.  Hopefully this short series of introduction posts will help broaden your knowledge of human osteology as it is practiced at the current time.

Further Information


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

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

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

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