human skeletal remains

Lauren McIntyre: A Day in the Life of Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m a Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Comprising a total of four full time staff, our department is responsible for dealing with archaeological human remains that are excavated by our company. This means everything from offering advice in the pre-planning stages of sites where human remains may be encountered, right through to writing up osteoarchaeological reports for publication (and everything inbetween!). We take every precaution to ensure that all human remains are treated with care and respect through the entire process. The work undertaken by our team can be extremely varied, and hopefully this post will show this as I describe what some of our staff are up to today.

Today started with a box run to our store. Human skeletons can take up a lot of space, so when we’re not analysing bones, quite often we’re transporting them between our laboratory and our store. The store currently contains several thousand skeletons from different sites! This is as well as all the other different types of finds (e.g. pottery) that are recovered from our archaeological sites. The skeletons in our warehouse might be waiting to be analysed, or in storage before they get archived at the relevant museum. The ones we’re returning today have been analysed, and we’ve also retrieved new material to start working on.

A lot of boxes on shelves in the Oxford Archaeology finds store

Part of the Oxford Archaeology Finds Store: Indiana Jones eat your heart out!

This is Mark, and today he’s simultaneously washing and conducting osteological analysis on a Roman skeletal assemblage. Most of the time, skeletons are washed by our Finds department before they come to Heritage Burial Services for analysis. However, this particular assemblage is in very poor condition – the bones quite often crumble into very small fragments as soon as they touch the water. Mark is recording age, sex, pathological information and anything else he can determine at this stage, in order to recover the maximum amount of information before the bones disintegrate. Although the bone condition is poor, tooth fragments are surviving quite well, as tooth enamel is quite a hardy material. The teeth may be sent for isotopic analysis to give us more information about the geographical origins of this population, which can help us figure out whether we’re looking at a local population or whether migrants are present.

An osteoarchaeologist sorting through small skeletal remains in a sieve over a bowl.

Osteoarchaeologist Mark Gibson, processing and assessing very fragmentary skeletal remains.

A finds tray lined with paper showing small fragments of human skeletal remains

The result of Mark’s hard work!

Alice, the third member of our team, is out on site today. As well as analysing skeletons in the laboratory, we often get called out to site to offer support to the field team. Today Alice is supervising the excavation and lifting of Anglo-Saxon skeletons at a site in Oxfordshire. The graves that these individuals are buried in are quite shallow, and a lot of the bones are in very poor condition. Alice is recording as much osteological information as she can for each of these skeletons prior to lifting, for the same reason as Mark is recording bones as he washes – we need to get as much information as possible before it is lost. This will help us to interpret and understand the population more thoroughly.

An osteoarchaeologist in a lab coat analysing an articulated skeleton and recording on a tablet

Osteoarchaeologist Alice Rose in her more usual laboratory habitat!

We also have a couple of visiting researchers working in our office. Henry Wu is a forensic odontologist who works for the Unrecovered War Casualties (UWC) investigative unit for the Australian Army and is visiting Heritage Burial Services in order to undertake research on archaeological material. Henry was introduced to us as a result of the work that Louise Loe, Head of Heritage Burials Services, has been doing for the Australian government on WWI mass graves at Fromelles, Northern France, excavated by OA in 2009. Today, Henry is researching the methods used to produce a dental prosthetic that was found with a post-medieval burial excavated by OAS. So far, he has found that the prosthetic is extremely sophisticated in terms of its construction, and would have been made specifically for the individual it was found with.

A researcher sat at his desk holding a book open and looking at the camera

Henry Wu, visiting researcher from UWC

Composite image, top, front and bottom views of a post-medieval dental prosthetic from Oxford

Composite image, top, front and bottom views of a post-medieval dental prosthetic from Oxford

Benedetta Mammi is an MSc student from Cranfield University, undertaking her dissertation research on a disarticulated post-medieval medical collection from Oxford. So far she’s examined over 2000 bone fragments! Her research questions include trying to establish the minimum number of people present in the assemblage, and also explore evidence of surgery and other medical intervention (e.g. dissection or autopsy) on the bones.

A researcher looking at disarticulated human bones at a desk

Benedetta Mammi, visiting researcher from Cranfield University

Surgical transfemoral amputation of the left thigh

Surgical transfemoral amputation of the left thigh

Finally, other than writing this post and transporting boxes to and from the store, I am writing a report for a watching brief that was conducted a few weeks ago in Buckinghamshire. I was called out to site because brick grave vaults were exposed during ground works that were being monitored by a member of the OAS field team. We needed to remove part of the brick grave structures to make way for new gas services to a local church. The necessary parts of the structures were recorded, and then carefully deconstructed by hand. Two of the brick graves were found to contain the individuals for which they were built, as well as various iron coffin fittings. The bones were left completely in situ, with limited osteological analysis being conducted via photography and visual observation of the bones. Examination of the coffin fitting designs, as well as the type of grave vaults present, strongly suggest that these are graves that were constructed in the early to mid-19th century. Once all the archaeological and osteological information was recorded, the graves were sealed back up. The individuals within these graves were disturbed as little as possible, and will now continue to rest in peace in their original burial location.

A post-medieval double burial inside a red brick grave vault

A post-medieval double burial inside a red brick grave vault

Inside a post-medieval brick grave vault

Inside a post-medieval brick grave vault

So, as you can see, the work that we undertake in Heritage Burial Services is very diverse! We all enjoy our work here (even sieving bone fragments out of mud…), and face interesting new challenges on a daily basis. It’s a great privilege to work with the physical remains of our ancestors, and use osteological data to try and further our understanding of how people lived 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 their Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: