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
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!