Cemeteries, Bones and Disease

ExcavationOn one cemetery disinterment project I worked, sixty archaeologists and osteologists diligently exposed approximately 4,000 nineteenth and early twentieth century burials. The cemetery had already been severely impacted and would come to more harm if nothing were done. The names of the buried hadn’t been lost, but whose bones belonged to which name was in need of rediscovery. We noted as much about the skeletons, coffins, and belongings as possible to try to identify and determine the lost stories. The field assessment of the bones was basic. We looked for indications of age, sex, height, any obvious disease and other factors that might help us determine who each individual was. An osteo-archaeologist examined the bones more thoroughly in the field lab.

In the field, there were periods when the careful methodical digging provided time to contemplate the world. At one point, a coworker turned to me and asked, “Have you ever wondered what your skull looks like?”

I thought, laughed, and responded, “No…clearly, you are weird!” But it isn’t a strange thing to wonder at all. Skulls and skeletons are as varied as faces and bodies. So often we try to recreate faces based upon bone structure. Forensic facial reconstruction or facial approximation while subjective and even controversial, can be a useful tool in forensic anthropology. Do we do the reverse? My ancestors, my gender, and age all play a factor when it comes to my bones, but as with my skin, that is hardly everything. What skeletal features do I carry genetically from my mother and father and from theirs? Height, muscle structure, genetic disease can all show in our bones.

While working in that forgotten cemetery some of us may have imagined who these people were and how they may have lived. Their bones gave us clues. As a humans develops, our bones undergo changes along with our brains, hormones and organs. There are bones that fuse together at certain ages. The skull shows suture marks that start to disappear with old age. Our teeth show signs of ware over time. The bone best for determining sex is the pelvis although features on the skull do tend to be more prominent on one versus the other. Height can be approximated based upon the length of a femur. The coffin, clothing and items that a person was buried with can indicate their wealth or lack of it. But the most morbidly fascinating thing I learned as a beginning archaeologist is how much diseases can alter bones.

Diseases can fuse, distort, create, and destroy bones. Certain diseases leave behind marks in bones like calling cards of suffering. There are many osteologists and forensic anthropologists who blog on this very subject. I will leave it to their expertise. I highly recommend Digitised Diseases. It “is an open access resource featuring human bones which have been digitised using 3D laser scanning, CT and radiography. The resource focuses on a wide range of pathological type specimens from archaeological and historical medical collections, specifically examples of chronic diseases which affect the human skeleton for which many of the physical changes are often not directly observable within clinical practice.” [1]

Ultimately, it is true, “we study the dead to learn more about the living!” – Emily Graslie [2].


[1] Digitised Diseases. http://www.digitiseddiseases.org/alpha/ Accessed 24 April 2014
[2] via Jeanni of JeannisNotebook formerly “grumblegrumbleallonsy” http://historyechoes.tumblr.com/post/76860077389/grumblegrumbleallonsy-i-was-bored-so-i-made-a Accessed 24 April 2014