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Bone Idol

10 Jun, 2008

wtx049279The work of osteologists at the Museum of London is shedding light on what life in London was like hundreds of years ago.

The Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London is everything you’d hope it would be: a maze of corridors leading to a large office crammed full of journals and papers, dusty bone fragments laid out for examination, and a skeleton on wheels.

Inconspicuous cardboard boxes line row after row of shelving, their labels giving little indication of their contents – some 17 000 skeletons examined and archived by the Centre over the last 30 years. These remains cover over 2000 years of London’s history, and have provided a glimpse into how Londoners used to live.

The majority of the skeletons stored are from the medieval period, but there are about 1000 skeletons from London’s four Roman cemeteries, and 80 Saxons. Bill White, Curator at the Centre, explains: “We haven’t got representative numbers of Anglo-Saxons because, after the Romans left, London was largely abandoned. People moved back much later on, so there are a few hundred years where’s there’s not really any archaeology.”

Thanks to Wellcome Trust funding, detailed data on 11 000 skeletons are now available on the Wellcome Osteological Research Database (WORD). This has transformed the way people use information from the Museum, allowing researchers to do ‘virtual studies’ from their own desks. The database is also important as a conservation tool: it reduces the amount of specimen handling and provides a record of what’s been done before, preventing the duplication of sampling.

Medics, dentists and other researchers can use the data for many purposes – to try to find when a particular disease arose, what sort of factors were involved and what medical interventions were made.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an individual’s sex is one of the more straightforward features to ascertain from skeletal remains. “In general we’re looking at the morphology, or shape,” says Jelena Bekvalac, a Research Osteologist at the Centre. The shape of the pelvis is obviously a key indicator, as is the shape of particular areas on the skull. “Males and females have similar characteristics, and a person could show both male and female features, so we use a scoring system for key areas.”

Pinpointing age is much harder. In younger individuals, developmental changes that happen at certain points can give an indication of age. For example, the eruption of teeth or fusion of certain parts of the skeleton are linked to particular age ranges.

“Ageing adults is harder as it’s all based on degeneration,” says Ms Bekvalac. “We all degenerate at different rates, and you might also get different ages for different parts of the same skeleton.” With this in mind, osteoarchaeologists fit individuals into age bands, rather than giving them a single, precise age.

Digging up diseases

The osteologists’ aim is not necessarily to determine the cause of death, but to examine evidence from the remains and the site at which they were found to understand more about a person’s life. How much can be inferred depends on the type of pathology present. “If you have something fast-acting or acute, you wouldn’t see it on the skeleton,” says Ms Bekvalac. “We need something chronic really – we do need people to have suffered, to a certain extent!”

Some diseases have key indicators. For example, a diet high in rich foods can lead to a characteristic ‘candlewax’-like overgrowth of bone, particularly in the spine, known as diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH). Osteoarthritis can be indicated by a shiny bone surface, caused by bone rubbing on bone, while smallpox seems to attack the elbow joint. On one skeleton the team found complete disruption of this joint by smallpox on one side. “Once you see an indicator like this, it doesn’t matter if it’s a whole skeleton or just part, you can tell that a person suffered from that disease,” says Ms Bekvalac.

The skeletons also tell of some horrible injuries, including a particularly grim case from a site in Farringdon. The femur head (the part of the leg bone that fits into the hip joint) had become separated from the main part of the bone and fragmented. The researchers found a small piece of bone that was shiny, a sign it had broken off and been loose in the joint. It appeared that the person continued to use their leg, even though it could have been incredibly painful.

One of the most remarkable discoveries of the team was a skeleton from the Royal Mint – the Black Death catastrophe cemetery of East Smithfield, dated to 1348-50 – found with an arrowhead lodged in the vertebra. The healing around the arrow suggests that, despite having been shot in the back, the person continued living. “They must have just snapped off the shaft of the arrow and carried on,” says Ms Bekvalac.

Working so closely with the skeletons means that the osteologists feel like they get to know the people they’re studying. This is strengthened if the individuals can be identified – such as at the Chelsea Old Church excavations, where the skeletal remains were found with coffin plates – and be linked to wills or parish records.

One Chelsea resident, William Wood, is a particular favourite of the osteologists. His details make it easy to picture how he might have looked and lived. Records reveal that he was the beadle (a parish church official) and butcher in Chelsea – then a wealthy rural area – who died in 1842 aged 84. Osteological studies showed he died toothless and with the ‘candlewax’-like spinal growth, indicative of DISH. “We know now that people with this condition tend to be overweight and suffering from type 2 diabetes,” says Bill White. “But there’s very low pain, if any, and he probably had a good life.”

Rewriting history

Osteological research can also help to correct some misconceptions about people and the way they lived in the past: everything from the austere lifestyle of monks to the random heaping of bodies in plague pits. Clues from the clergy reveal that some may have not lived as modestly as thought. Some higher clergy were taller than the normal monks, and showed evidence of tooth decay, both of which are associated with a better diet than many medieval people enjoyed.

As well as from monasteries, many of the medieval remains studied come from so-called ‘catastrophe cemeteries’, associated with events that killed many people quickly. One such cemetery in East Smithfield was created during the Black Death. “They started to bury people individually but that quickly became unfeasible,” says Mr White. “They dug large trenches but carefully laid the bodies out side by side, with children’s bodies placed between them to make use of the space.” Poignantly, parts of the trenches remain empty, marking when the plague ended.

The comparison of skeletons from the Roman, medieval and postmedieval periods has uncovered surprising findings about the population’s average height. “People assume that the increase in average height seen today came about gradually, but that’s not what we see,” says Mr White. According to the team’s measurements, the Romans were slightly smaller than the average height today, the Saxons were much taller, and people from the early medieval people were shorter again.

“They are a marvellous resource to do research on. You can look at so much – the patterns of a disease over time, such as TB or osteoarthritis, a disease of antiquity commonly observed in skeletons, and even diseases that people might think of as restricted to modern times, like osteoporosis.” says Ms Bekvalac. “It’s not just about learning about the past, it has implications for now and potentially for the future too.”

Centre for Human Bioarchaeology (including the Wellcome Osteological Research Database):www.museumoflondon.org.uk/chb

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