Cemetery excavation at the Royal Mint site in London

Counting Bones

Mike Henderson
07.10.2014

Human skeletal remains are regularly discovered during archaeological excavations by MOLA in advance of construction and development works. These remains soon find their way to the osteology team who analyse the bones in order to reveal as much information as possible about the lives and health of past populations.

All of the data recorded from the skeletons is entered onto an Oracle WORD relational database. This records all of the important contextual data about each individual skeleton such as the level of bone preservation and information regarding the burial. This also provides a catalogue of all of the bones and teeth present, documents the numerous bone measurements, indicators and age at death and biological sex and any evidence of pathological bone changes or disorders. Once an individual skeleton is recorded, these records can be linked to other archaeological evidence such as associated grave goods or dating information and also allows for comparisons to be made between skeletons from the same excavation as well as different sites and time periods.

This extensive resource of osteological data currently holds information recorded from 1,883,466 unique bones and 289,363 separate teeth from a total of 16,207 individual skeletons. This information presents evidence from a small sample of a population spanning almost all periods of human occupation in London and further afield.

The dataset reveals the wide range of diseases and pathological conditions that affected the bones of these past populations. Dental disease and degenerative spinal joint disease reflect the most commonly observed disorders. Infectious disease represents the next most frequently recorded pathology with 3227 individuals showing evidence inflammation of the periosteum that overlies the bones (periostitis). The majority of these cases are non-specific where the cause of the infection is unknown, this may represent lesions to the inner surfaces of the ribs suggesting a response to a lung infection or inflammatory bone in the maxillary sinuses reflecting chronic sinusitis. In some cases, the distribution of bone lesions may relate to a specific infection: 179 individuals displayed evidence of tuberculosis, 134 had suffered from treponemal disease (syphilis) and there were seven examples of possible leprosy.

Accidents and traumatic injuries appear commonplace throughout different time periods. Evidence of healed fractures were recorded in 1703 skeletons and 93 individuals had suffered joint dislocations. Evidence of interpersonal violence was suggested by 74 individuals with sharp force injuries such as blade wounds, 188 cases of blunt force trauma and ten examples of projectile injuries. Evidence of treatment or surgical intervention was reflected in 24 amputations, seven trephinations and 457 individuals displaying evidence of autopsy or dissection.

Evidence of osteoarthritis resulting from age related degeneration or secondary to an injury or disease affected the joints of 1346 skeletons. Metabolic conditions reflecting bone changes resulting from vitamin D deficiency rickets affected 452 individuals with 129 examples of vitamin C deficiency scurvy. Evidence of possible dietary excesses was suggested in the bones of 223 skeletons showing new bone formation in the spine resulting in the bony union of several vertebrae (Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis), and erosive lesions in 56 individuals diagnostic of gout. In modern cases these diseases have been linked to rich diets and obesity.

Rarer conditions recorded on the database included two individuals with a cleft palate; the abnormal development of the roof of the mouth and a single example of achondroplasia a common cause of dwarfism resulting in short stature.

This combined dataset offers important insights into the demographic makeup and physical characteristics of these past populations. This provides clues as to the lifestyles, health and mortality of those buried, the diseases they were exposed to and the hardships and difficulties that life presented.

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