Human Osteologists at MOLA (c) MOLA

Ask our Osteologists: Meet Niamh and Elizabeth

Elizabeth Knox and Niamh Carty
08.03.2018

In this blog we speak to Elizabeth and Niamh, two of our dedicated in-house Human Osteologists (human bone specialists) about their fascinating work analysing human remains from our archaeological sites and what this can tell us about women in the archaeological record for International Women’s Day…

How did you both get into osteology, what sparked your interest in studying human remains?

Niamh: What appealed to me was the fact that human osteologists can assist in forensic situations and help to answer questions about the present as well as the past. Many aspects of osteology are universal, which has allowed me to excavate and analyse skeletons from the UK and Ireland and as far afield as Peru.

Elizabeth: As a painter I’ve always been interested in anatomy and how the body moves, but it wasn’t until I went on to study biological anthropology that my interest in studying human remains began. I enjoyed learning how excavation and osteological research aided in forensic cases and human rights violations across South America and within the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Being able to use my archaeology and osteology skills to aid in forensic investigations appealed to me, especially the ability to interpret human remains and tell their story.

What part does osteology play in archaeology? What can we learn by analysing skeletons?

Niamh: Osteology gives us a vital insight into the actual people who lived in the past, both in terms of demographic data like age, sex and social status and how people lived; their health, diet and migration patterns. Osteology is also a very multi-disciplinary subject, so we are in constant consultation with our finds specialists and field team to ascertain information about how people were buried that might help us to find out more about them. The position they were buried in, grave goods, coffin plates and the location of the burial within a cemetery are all vital pieces of information for us.

Elizabeth: By working with colleagues in the earth and life sciences we can gain further information about diet and migration of individuals through fascinating isotope analysis and more current studies using ancient DNA and analysing dental calculus (the hardened plaque that builds up on teeth). These methods have produced incredible information. Dental calculus analysis on skeletons excavated as part of our work for Crossrail recently revealed intriguing information about the lives of 16th to 18th century Londoners. By extracting and analysing the information trapped within this hardened plaque, we revealed information about the bacterial flora present in people’s mouths and throats, medicinal plants, as well as clues hinting at their domestic environments and possibly their jobs.

What sort of evidence leads you to being able to identify a skeleton as female? How can you tell?

Niamh: We mainly use the shape of the skull and pelvis to differentiate between male and female skeletons; for example female skeletons tend to have a wider pelvis to allow for childbirth. These characteristics can vary from population and time period, so having a wide variety of reference material and skeletons with bibliographic information (such as coffin plates) can add to the methodologies we use.

What can we learn about society’s treatment of women through osteology?

Niamh: We can learn a lot about women in the past through osteology; both from the contextual information (i.e. how they are buried) and from studying skeletons. We can see what illnesses or accidents women experienced and we’re able to find out how this differs from the male population. For instance, there appears to be lower incidence of infectious disease in females buried in 17th and 18th century London. After examining the historical sources, a possible explanation of this is that women were more likely to move back home to their families when they were ill whereas men were less likely to do so. We’ve also recorded a higher incidence of female burials at non-Conformist burial grounds from 18th and 19th century London, which could be because non-Conformist religion was more attractive to women as it offered slightly more freedom and independence.

Elizabeth: Osteology can also shed light on misconceptions we hold of women in the past; for instance smoking is often seen as being a working man's pleasure, but when tobacco was first introduced to London in 1558, it was marketed to all. In recent studies we’ve recorded several female skeletons displaying pipe notches and dental staining characteristic of smoking.

We can see the effects of restrictive clothing on skeletons, for example where corsets have changed the shape of the ribs, we’ve found that this is not unique to females. Other changes caused by constricting attire have been found in male skeletons such as evidence of hallux valgus, a condition that affects the foot bones, caused by wearing tight shoes.

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about the work Niamh and Elizabeth do, then take a look at their work for Crossrail, where over 3000 skeletons were excavated, providing an amazing opportunity for osteological research. Highlights include:

  • From the experts
  • Science
  • Publications
  • Research
  • Osteoarchaeology

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