inhumation

Lauren McIntyre: Investigating the dead – a day at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Following our post on the Day of Archaeology blog last year, we thought it would be great to provide another snapshot showing the kind of work that our team undertake here. I will also be live tweeting my day in the office from the Oxford Archaeology Twitter account – you can follow us at @oatweet to see exactly what we’re up to!

Today is my first day back in the office after working out on site for quite a number of weeks. My first job of the day was to take some bone samples for radiocarbon dating (after catching up with the rest of the team on project updates and answering lots of emails!). Stratigraphic information and dates from spot finds were only able to provide a broad “Roman” date for one of the cremation burials in question. The second burial (an inhumation) was completely undated. Radiocarbon dating will therefore allow us to establish more accurate dates which will help us to contextualise the burials in question. We take approximately 2g of bone for the sample, being sure to identify and weigh the fragment. This information is then recorded on a proxy note, which is put back with the remainder of the skeleton. This is very important, so that it is clear to any future researchers accessing the skeleton (usually after the skeleton has been deposited in a museum) that a sample has been taken, and they can easily see what has been sampled and why.

Cremated bone sample for C14 dating, and proxy note

The rest of my day is spent discussing a variety of upcoming projects, including strategies for excavating an inverted cremation urn recently excavated on one of our sites, as well as starting analysis of the small assemblage from which the C14 samples were taken. The assemblage comprises both cremated bone and unburnt inhumation burials. I start analysis of the cremated material by sorting the bone into identifiable and unidentifiable fragments. Cremated bone deposits can contain large identifiable fragments, although a large proportion are often unidentifiable. Once fragments are sorted, they are weighed and examined for evidence of age, sex and pathology. This helps us to determine how many people are represented, and potentially gives us demographic and health information. We also record the level and pattern of fragmentation, as well as the colour of the bone, and degree of shrinkage: this information can tell us a lot about the cremation process, which is known to vary between different time periods.

Sorting cremated bone into identifiable skeletal elements

Helen, the second member of our team, is spending today writing up one of our larger assemblages, a post-medieval hospital assemblage from Oxfordshire. The skeletons in this assemblage have substantial quantities of pathological lesions, and have produced some very interesting case studies!

Helen, PO at HBS

Adolescent male skeleton with peri-mortem fractures of the cranium and left ribs

Transfemoral leg amputation with peri-mortem tibial fracture

So far today Helen has been looking at the fracture patterns from a single skeleton, trying to establish whether these injuries may have been caused by a single traumatic event, or whether they were accumulated over time. The skeleton potentially has ribs that have been dislocated where they meet the vertebrae, as well as ante mortem fractures to the sternum, ribs, scapula, arm and wrist. As well as this she has been looking at fracture patterns across groups of skeletons – one group contains several male skeletons which all exhibit fractures to the wrist, first metacarpal (base of the thumb) and nasal bones. One possibility is that these people were all partaking in activities such as boxing or bare knuckle fighting, a fairly popular activity in late 18th century towns.

Louise, Head of the Heritage Burial Services team, is busy today scoping out a desk based assessment of a disused post-medieval burial ground. She is exploring the number, date range and extent of burials present at the site in question. A desk based assessment of a known burial site would primarily involve a headstone survey and visits to the church and local records office to examine burial registers and plans. The results of the research would then assist with plans for future development of the site.

Louise Loe, Head of HBS, working hard as always!

Yet again, you can see that the work we are undertaking here is very diverse. Whether we are sorting and quantifying cremated bone fragments or analysing data to look for patterns of health and activity, everything we do helps to build a picture of how people lived and died in the past.

All photographs within this post are copyright of Oxford Archaeology.

Lauren McIntyre is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s South office in Oxford, in our Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/specialist-services/7-top-level-pages/14-burials-archaeology