Human Remains

First airing of conservators’ new toy at the Royal Academy

By MOLA archaeological conservators Liz and Luisa

Sometimes, we archaeological conservators get to do some non-archaeological related work. This week we have been helping the Royal Academy of Art pack their collection of human remains.


This collection is mostly comprised of articulated skeletons and limbs. And was probably used by art students to learn anatomy and help them draw accurately. The articulated nature of the objects presents quite a challenge when moving and packing the remains. So special attention has to be paid to fingers and toes, bouncy patellae and spring action jaws. We have been making acid free tissue mittens and socks to protect the hands and feet; and bandaging mandibles and joins to make sure they don’t shake whilst in transport.














Packing loose material

However the bulk of our work is archaeological; and currently quite a bit of it is the conservation of waterlogged organics, like leather and wood. In order to treat these types of objects we need a vacuum freeze dryer. Our very elderly vacuum pump for the freeze dryer finally decided to take a much deserved retirement (in a skip) a couple of months back. Today we finally received our brand new shiny vacuum pump and Liz could not be happier.



Proud mama looking her new baby for the very first time



It’s alive!

The rest of the day will be looking at our new toy every five minutes to check the vacuum pump is still working properly and filling up the freezer chamber to start drying leather again.

Researching the Human Remains at Hampshire Cultural Trust

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog:

Nicole Beale

Cynthia is working with Garrard to select samples for dating, to find out more about the human remains from the Danebury environs. Today they are working on the bones from an Iron Age cemetery, Suddern Farm. The work is part of a project with Oxford University, University of Glasgow and University of Leicester, and is ongoing.

Garrard and Cynthia look at the remains from the Danebury environs

Garrard points out that there is a visible healed fracture on the radius of the left wrist of the individual that they are looking at.

Garrard points out the healed fracture

Garrard is working on an individual from Weyhill Fair that was found under the foundations of a building. There had been very little information about the individual because the remains were under a floor and did not have any other means of dating associated with them.

The work area at Chilcomb HQ

Hampshire Field Club funded the radio-carbon dating and Garrard is assessing the materials which will make up part of the report covering this research.



Nicole Beale

A day of archaeology and a ‘holiday’ by the graveside…

Hello! My name is Katherine and I am a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester. This is my first year contributing a post for the Day of Archaeology as, unlike last year in which I was stuck in the library shackled to a desk*, I actually have some fun stuff to write about!

My research project examines the practice of mortuary archaeology in the UK (confusingly, this is not the study of mortuaries, as I am often asked, but the archaeological investigation of past beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial instead!) and whether it has a wider role to play in contemporary society – one which goes beyond furthering our knowledge of the past. In particular, however, I am interested in the impact of ‘digging up the dead’ on archaeology practitioners. As such, I am exploring the effect of professional training on attitudes towards human remains, whether achieving a level of professionalism and expertise means subjugating emotional connections to the past and what bearing professionally-held conceptions of human remains have upon the construction of archaeological knowledge and the narratives that are produced for public consumption.

A ‘humerus’ picture in the unit’s warehouse…

To this end, much of the second year of my PhD has been spent interviewing lots of folk about their opinions on these matters and I am now spending the summer conducting ethnographic fieldwork with various organisations, including commercial archaeology units, field schools and museums. This involves observing and participating in daily life at each of my host sites, where I am exploring the assumptions and practices that underpin the process of mortuary archaeology and looking anew at the overlooked, the taken-for-granted and that which is considered routine.

On this most hallowed Day of Archaeology, I am currently ensconced in a very picturesque city in the north of England, where I have spent the past two weeks mithering the staff of a commercial archaeology unit (the deliberate vagueness here is an attempt to preserve anonymity!). The unit has very kindly allowed me to use their excavation of a medieval burial ground (which lurks underneath a car park, naturally) as a case study for my thesis and staff have agreed to be watched, photographed, sketched, interviewed and asked a whole bunch of silly questions.

However, what with being in such a beautiful city, the glorious weather and the break from reading and writing, I confess that I do feel a little like I’m on holiday and I am probably having entirely too much of a good time (I am definitely eating waaaaaay too much cake – archaeology is powered by sugar!). That said, I do go home at the end of each day covered in dirt and aching from head to toe, as I am digging alongside collecting my own data. For someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a computer screen, it has been a joy to re-discover my muscles and the great big ball of fire in the sky!

Today, amongst other things, I will be finishing up the paperwork for the burial I excavated yesterday. As it’s a Friday, however, we will down tools for the day a little earlier and there is talk of heading to the pub (this is where the best research takes place, honestly!) for a well-earned drink…or two – it is so hot today that I am actually hallucinating a nice cold pint! I will then throw myself on a train back to Manchester (I’m participating in tomorrow’s Festival of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum) and spend the journey typing up my field notes from the day and answering emails.

I have a couple more weeks left here and then I am off to my next site, but I will be sad to leave. The archaeologists here have made me feel incredibly welcome and allowed me access into their ‘secret’ world. It has been a real privilege to work alongside them and an even greater honour to excavate the remains of the dead which, shockingly, is actually my first time. As a result, this has provided me with a whole wealth of additional material based on my own personal reflections and feelings. The challenge is how I am going to analyse and write all of this up…but that will, perhaps, be the topic of next year’s post!

*I’m not really complaining, I do actually love my PhD!

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…

Dusty Muddy Stuff (“I think you will find its called Archaeological Mateeeeriaaal!”)

Elena Jones: Assistant Registrar/Registration Assistant, Department of Prehistory & Europe at the British Museum.

Today I am sitting down in an ancient and threadbare office swivel chair at my bubble-wrap and acid free tissue covered desk. I am in a British Museum office – away from the main Bloomsbury site – that has been little changed, by my reckoning, for 25 years or so.

To fill you in on what I do, my current work here is on the same project it has been Monday to Thursday for over a year now. It involves the registration of an archaeological assemblage from an excavation of the Etton Landscape in Norfolk (if you want to know more see No.109, 2005: Archaeology and Environment of the Etton Landscape, by Charles French and Francis Pryor ISBN 0 9520616 2 7).

This site, of late Neolithic and Bronze Age features has delivered to us, in the department of Prehistory & Europe, a large assemblage of flint implements, pottery sherds, animal bone and human remains. It has been my privilege (and my job!) to sort, identify, photograph and document the finds, working from the finds themselves and the site publication.

All this, often very repetitive work, eventually culminates in a well-organised collection of objects properly housed in long-term storage and marked with a unique registration number which refers to a detailed online digital record which can be found on the British Museum website

But back to today! and this snap shot into the world of museum Registration. I am ‘registering’ the last of ten Etton Bronze-Age human burials. I have a particular interest in human remains and as such I take my time to carefully identify, side (is it from the left or the right side of body?) and individually bag each bone of this skeleton. The burial in question is of a young male with relatively good preservation and no apparent health problems. It is quite common for me to come across the bony growths, spurs and polished surfaces of an individual with arthritis or the carious legions on the teeth that tell me this person probably had tooth ache. Moreover, after working with so many burials from numerous sites you soon come to appreciate the splendid variations in the dimensions of people’s facial bones. Beetle brows, high cheek bones and prominent chins are all in the mix!

The burials from this particular site are taking a little longer than one might expect because, although they have been given a burial number, many of the bone fragments have also been assigned an individual field number. This means that I must transcribe the full site details onto the new bag for each of these pieces of bone rather than just noting down the burial number.

After accurately transcribing the site details from the original, and now rather ropey, finds bags I group bones and fragments within larger bags and label them with general skeletal parts such as “pelvis”, “ribs”, “skull” or “right foot”. I hope that when someone- probably a student- comes to study this individual, my careful bagging and labelling will speed up their task and reduce any possible confusion. To those of us who work in registration and documentation it is always essential that things are well ordered, accurate and above all, make sense.

Throughout this packing process I keep a detailed list, for the database description, of the various pieces of bone I come across and the proportions that have survived. I also use a visual method of recording the burial and colour in, on a schematised drawing of a skeleton, the portions of each bone we have, annotating the number of fragments or loose teeth and any oddities or pathology. Finally, the burial and this skeleton sheet are carefully packed into archival boxes, with bubble wrap and acid-free tissue for protection, which are marked in permanent marker with their individual registration number and the number of boxes for that particular number.

It will be a very satisfying day when the last of this Etton Landscape material is marked and placed in its cabinet or on to its shelf, the table is stripped of its cushioning bubble wrap and I begin to consider how to tackle the next- and there always is a ‘next’!- dusty unregistered archaeological assemblage. Any day now!