And all the other bits!

As we work closely with archaeological planners and advisors, particularly the English Heritage Greater London Archaeological Advisors in London, the scope of all of our fieldwork and post-excavation strategies follow nationally agreed strategies, we have a really structured process that guides us through the excavation and analysis works. So my specialist osteological analysis and reporting will tie in to specific research questions generated for each site. On large projects like our post-medieval cemetery excavation in Bethnal Green, I will also engage with other specialists, particularly our small finds specialist, Helen MacQuarrie, who will be looking at the coins, dress accessories such as hair combs and buttons that we found with the burials, and our dendrochronologist Anne Crone, who

An adult skull which we found with a coin in each eye orbit for the symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Variation in coffin decoration from post-medieval burials excavated from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology

has been working to identifying the species that were used for the manufacture of wooden gravemarkers, which we also found at the site. Anne is also blogging about her day today – worth having a look. And I’ve uploaded a picture of one particularly interesting burial we found with a coin placed in each eye orbit as a symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife.

As an osteologist, I also look into the variation in funerary practices that were adopted in the past. The Bethnal Green burials were interred in wooden coffins, mostly covered with an outer textile that tends not to survive very well. The textile was held in place by upholstery pins and the coffin makers placed the pins in a range of patterns to add a bit of variation to the design of the coffin. Additional metal decorations were added, including angels and urns with flowers as well as sun-rays and rosettes. It’s interesting to see if the construction and decoration of the coffin varied, either between the sexes or by age or showed any variation across different sites.  So after recording each skeleton, I’ll catalogue the coffin size and decoration from site records and photographs and hopefully quantify the changes. You can see the variation in the coffin decorations in the site photo and this is generating a mass of data that will hopefully provide some really interesting results. Some of the burials had surviving coffin plates, which tell us the name and date of death of the individual. We can try and identify these individuals in the surviving parish records such as birth, marriage and death records, the census records, parish rate books and in wills, to try and broaden what we know about their lives. At the end of the analysis, we will bring together all of the research and evidence in a site-specific monograph, so the results will be fully accessible in the public domain together with the archived finds, which will be deposited at the LAARC.

All the lovely skeletons!

Just finished recording a juvenile skeleton with lovely skeletal preservation, which meant a range of pathological changes were clear. The most obvious change was destruction of the bone at the base of the tooth root for the second deciduous molar in the mandible, with the bone destruction surrounded by a layer of porous new bone formation. The tooth crown had been destroyed by caries (cavity) and it seems likely that a secondary bacterial infection had developed into an abscess, which had drained into the surrounding gums. This is quite a severe change considering the pattern of tooth eruption suggests the child was only aged about 4-5 years when they died.

This particular child had also suffered from previous episodes of disease; their leg bones, particularly the femora (thigh bones), showed marked bending most likely indicating a vitamin D deficiency rickets. We need to form vitamin D either in our skin following exposure to the sun or from our diet, oily fish and eggs containing natural sources of vitamin D. A poor calcium intake in the diet may also be an important factor influencing the onset. It’s likely that a range of factors such as poor living and working conditions, limited diets and increased air pollution during the post-medieval period contributed to cases of rickets. There were also plaques of bone formation over the inside of the cranial bones, with prominent outgrowths forming in the occipital bone at the base of the skull. The deposits were thickened and formed of a long-standing remodelled bone layer, which suggests they had survived with the cranial inflammation or non-specific infection for quite some period.

Bone destruction at the base of the tooth roots and porous new bone formation caused by infection from a dental abscess in a child’s mandible. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!