Digitised Diseases

Natasha Powers (MOLA): Head of Osteology and Research Coordinator

Don't mind the skeleton - it's all part of the job

Natasha Powers: Head of Osteology and Research Coordinator

It’s tricky trying to balance the pressures of commercial archaeology with fulfilling the research potential of an assemblage and presenting that to the public, but I like a challenge and I’m lucky enough to have a job that lets me do all of these things.

At the moment I am writing the assessment of a rather interesting assemblage of 30 urned Romano-British cremations from Surrey (including one nice complete subadult). This involved lots of weighing; me getting excited about finding sexually dimorphic bits of bone, unfused epiphyses and the odd bit of pathology; and the polite incomprehension of my finds colleagues (who I share a bay with) as to why it is exciting to find a burial where most of the vertebrae are still complete. Mind you these are the same people who just announced that they’d got another Roman phallus “to add to my collection” – not quite sure what they meant by that!? Things got a bit interrupted by two forensic visits (we do a lot of bone ID for the Met and City police) and a walrus…best not ask…

Analysing human remains and managing what you might think of as the environmental archaeology team is one half of my job (well 4/5ths to be precise). In the other fifth I’m trying to match some of the excellent ideas we all have for synthetic and spin-off projects to people who might fund them and to academic departments and commercial organisations who might be interested in collaborating. Coordinating our research applications I’m learning about all sorts of topics and periods that I have not previously studied (or in some cases chose to actively avoid!) from Roman tile manufacture to maritime archaeology via ginger beer bottles, WW1 housing and GIS mapping of finds distribution.

On the research front, this week has been a bit more hectic than normal as we’re also finishing off a project which we’ve been working on with the University of Bradford and the Royal College of Surgeons. It’s taken my colleagues Mike and Don the past year and a half, but they’ve now laser scanned all of the ‘best’ pathological bone in our collections and come the autumn anyone who wants to (and can get on-line) will be able to look at 3D photorealistic models of some rare and diagnostic bones. Best send out that final invoice now I think of it…then back to putting the final touches to a talk for an afternoon on a boat on the Regents Canal (worse gigs than pootling along at 4mph talking about things that interest you). I’m drawing together osteological things to do with water and death, from prehistory to the 1850s… I just need to borrow the Archbishop’s false teeth and I think we’re set…

Don Walker: Archaeological Help for Doctors

Caution: osteologists at work

The Digitised Diseases project, a collaboration between the University of Bradford, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and the Royal College of Surgeons, is producing high resolution laser 3D scans of diseased human bones. These will be included in a medical resource website aimed at informing and teaching doctors and other professionals. The advantage of working with bone from archaeological sites and museum collections is that they can illustrate rare lesion types, some of which may not appear frequently in 21st century clinical medicine. Without access to antibiotics, sufferers of chronic diseases in the past could go on to develop the full extent of bony lesions. Having won JISC funding for the project, the team is currently selecting appropriate examples of pathological change for scanning. Following the excavation of a large number of burial grounds from different periods ofLondon’s history, MOLA is uniquely placed to provide interesting examples of disease for scanning. Each bone is entered into the database which produces an index number. They are then described, photographed and scanned. The photographs are then mapped onto the scans by gaming industry experts to produce the final textured 3D image. The illustrations below show scanned ‘blanks’ prior to photographic mapping.

Laser scanned image of a mature adult male with possible nasopharyngeal carcinoma from post-medieval Southwark, London

Laser scanned image of a right arm bone (humerus) with dwarfism from Medieval East London


For further information please see:-