Skeleton Crew: A day in the life of an Osteoarchaeologist

My day, as always starts with coffee (in an appropriately themed mug).

Then its check emails and answer queries. Today it was what to do with the human bone extracted from the animal bone. In many archaeological assemblages human bone has become mixed with animal bone. It is the job of the specialist to be able to identify which is which.

I like to use Twitter to find about other archaeology and osteology and to keep up to date with new research. I got asked – what it the weirdest pathology I’ve ever found? This is quite a tricky question, as there is weird as in rare, or as in ‘wow that must’ve been a horrible disease to have’.

I once identified an incredibly rare genetic condition in a neonate. Thanatophoric dysplasia, it means ’death-bearing’, and is incompatible with life. It has a reported incidence of 0.6 in 10,000 births. It is a spontaneous mutation, and a lethal form of achondroplasia (also known as dwarfism). The neonate was from a late 18th early 19th century graveyard and their remains were recovered from within a small wooden box.

There has been much pathology to stir sympathy with the individual. Caries sicca of tertiary syphilis on the cranial bones has an ‘eaten-away’ look and you know by the time these develop that the person has been living with the condition a long time and most likely suffering from a stumbling gait and bouts of madness.

Osteomyelitis (bone infection) on any bone always looks horrific, as well as some of the worst dental abscesses and caries. In the times before antibiotics, pain and suffering from infection would have been prolonged and potentially lethal.

At the moment I am writing up my analysis of a large skeletal assemblage. It involves much statistical work and ordering of the information into tables. I am currently looking at the cranial indices to see whether these can identify individuals who may be from elsewhere. We have taken samples for carbon, nitrogen and sulphur and oxygen isotopes and we are hoping the results will help inform where these people were living when they were children and the food they were eating in the last 10 years of life.

In addition to skeletal analysis my work involves examining cremated human bone. Cremating the dead was a popular choice for many time periods and so I analyse cremated bone quite frequently. This can come in within an urn, or from an non-ceramic urn context (e.g. a biodegradable container such as leather, woven fabric , fur, or wood), or none at all.

I cover all things burial-related and post-medieval coffin fittings are one of my niche specialist areas. I view burials holistically, from the container to the possessions accompanying the person. These all have an influence on the final result, the bones. I do branch out into grave memorials and other ‘memento mori’. Having worked in churchyards and inside churches, you can’t escape iconography of death.

I think the best part of my job is the wide variety of knowledge and research you need to do in order to undertake it. From understanding the process of the decomposition of a corpse, to archaeological excavation and reading medical literature on the various diseases. I also have random information like the different types of burial shrouds and fabrics used over time.

As an archaeologist you always get asked “what’s your best find?” and I suppose people would expect me to say something skeletal, or valuable like gold. However, for me, it was an egg. I was excavating a medieval child skeleton in Poland and the preservation was excellent. Between the lower right arm and body were two (now broken) eggs. They survived as the shells, crushed over time into lots of tiny fragments, but you could still see the oval shape of an egg. There were no other grave goods, unlike the adults in the cemetery who had jewellery and knives. It was a very touching object placed into the grave, which according to the locals was a feature of burials in Eastern Europe symbolising new life and rebirth. I have never found another egg since, although my partner (a field archaeologist) has and it was a complete one, but that’s another story!

My day ends still writing up that report, it may take me a while before it’s finished, there’s a lot to say. Hopefully in the not too distant future it’ll be in print for everyone to read.