Working with human remains

Working with human remains can assist in ascertaining key demographics in a population. You can assess pathologies and mortality rates.

Forensic anthropology is one of the best known applications of physical anthropology. A good forensic anthropologist has to be skilled in numerous things, including, but not exhaustive, of archaeological field techniques, functional anatomy and paleopathology.

What usually comes first with any examination is identifying age, sex and stature where applicable. It is difficult to determine precisely how old an individual was when he or she died, based solely on skeletal remains. Instead, individuals are usually classified into general age categories such as foetal, infant, child, adolescent, young adult, middle adult and old adult. Assessing age in juveniles is done by the length of the bones, extent of fusion of the epiphysis (the caps at the end of long bones that fuse completely after the age of 20), and the status of teeth (dental eruptions). Where the skeletons are over 20, other techniques are employed again including but are not limited to, several changes and fuses within the body. Signs of deterioration are also used for individuals presumably over 30, which present as spinal pathologies, bones becoming less dense and more porous, osteoarthritis is more prevalent, and often there are more work-related injuries.

Gender can be identified by examining the pubis bone, which is elongated in women to allow for childbirth. Another good indicator of sex is the skull where males have larger skulls and females are more delicate (although this is usually applied tentatively). There are other techniques, which we discuss extensively in the course.

Stature can be ascertained by applying a mathematical equation known as a regression equation, to the measurement of the femur; the longest bone in the body. This data is combined with a similar measurement of the tibia, to provide a highly accurate estimation of height. Stature is an interesting one, and a great thing to asses across a demographic as stature is often linked to nutrition, thus consistently “short” populations may have suffered malnutrition during their developmental stages. We see this at Amarna, with an average female height of 5ft and a male height of 5ft 3 which when compared to other Egyptian samples is simply staggering. (Zabecki, M. 2008. 3.7 Human bones from the South Tombs Cemetery. Available from: Amarna provides a rich sample for the biological anthropologist and is looked at in detail in the bioarchaeology in Egyptian samples- first steps course.

We are limited to the techniques we can employ with human remains by the type of sample we are working with i.e mummy (soft tissue) vs skeletal remains. We look in more detail at the different techniques employed to asses the two types of remains, in the course.  Studies of isotopic ratios in bone, skin and hair can indicate major dietary components, and it has even been employed, interestingly, to understand weaning practices in the Dakhleh Oasis (Kellis 2). Human remains can reveal much data when examined by the non‐destructive method of radiography. Studies have used radiography rather than macroscopy (examination with the naked eye) to determine the full extent of skeletal conditions such as fractures, osteoarthritis and dental problems. Moreover, radiographs can reveal internal calcification in arteries in addition to diseases of the hepatobiliary system and have previously revealed the ova of Schistosoma haematobium (an endoparasite) in the kidneys of mummies from the second dynasty.  Radiographs can detect Harris lines which are produced in bone when the body undergoes a stressful period. Macroscopy in many samples can highlight such pathologies as cribra orbitalia (pitting of the eye sockets) and porous lesions found on the cranial vault known as ‘porotic hyperostosis’, which both suggest iron deficiency. There are a multitude of pathologies which we could discuss here including enamel hypoplasias, spinal pathologies, non-specific periostitis, endocranial lesions and fractures.

All the best,


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