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

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


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