This week has been a long one! I’m not sure why as it’s been pretty good and quite productive but it’s taken a while to get through. Maybe it’s because I’ve been travelling for my data collection again and I’m not used to driving so much?! As well as my PhD work this week I went to a really cool talk about Bodysnatching in an old operating theatre – perfect for Halloween!
On Monday I was back at the stores of the Hampshire Cultural Trust to finish going through the various sites they have. I’m pretty pleased with myself as I’ve managed to get through a lot of skeletons in a decent amount of time. There are two small sites to work through but as they’ll only take me half a day at most I will return another time. At some point in the future I will need to go to their other store to access a Romano-British population.
In the last week two cool things have been confirmed:
- I am returning to volunteering in the museums department, based at the Royal College of Surgeons
- I am on the committee for a new conference entitled ‘Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies’
I’m really excited about both of these and can’t wait to get stuck in.
About 2 years ago I started volunteering at in the museums department of the Royal College of Surgeons and enjoyed it so much that continued to work there until I started my PhD. Whilst there I was lucky enough to work with some amazing osteology collections and saw some interesting pathologies. I really enjoyed working there and was sad to leave, however, I knew I needed time to settle into my PhD.
A year on I have made the decision to return once a fortnight, so not to impact with my studies too much, to volunteer once again. I am so happy to be returning and to see some of the people I had met previously and can’t wait to get started. I am hoping to start this week, although I am waiting for confirmation, but already know what I will be working on – but I’ll wait until I’ve started to tell you all about it! It will be so lovely to go back, and a positive (and useful!) distraction from my PhD work.
Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies
A fellow PhD student and friend of mine from Southampton (archaeosarah) and colleagues have set up a new conference called Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies (SSSB) and I have offered to be a committee member. It will be an inter-disciplinary conference for discussing topics surrounding death, anatomy, attitudes to the body, mortuary practices, and more! This will be a joint conference by the Osteoarchaeology group (Department of Archaeology) and the Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences (CLAS) at the University of Southampton.
Since volunteering at the Royal College of Surgeons I have become more and more interested in anatomy and therefore saw this as a great opportunity to learn more about the subject. Last year I helped out with the University of Southampton’s student conference, PGRAS, for the archaeology department. I therefore thought helping out with SSSB would be a great way to build on this experience.
Part of my role as a committee member will be to help with the general organisation of the conference and to read submitted abstracts and proposals. In addition to this I have been asked to help out with promoting the SSSB on social media. This will certainly be a useful skill to develop as so much is carried out in this way now – plus it should help with my networking skills. I’m sure there’ll be lots of other things to help with and I’m definitely going to get stuck in – I may even run a workshop!
Please go and check out the conference and sign up to our mailing list for updates!
Twitter: @sssbconf or #sssbconf
My last blog was at Christmas and I’ve been meaning to do another one for the last few weeks but never seemed to get around to it – so here it is finally!
Since the Christmas break (which was lovely and lazy!) and settling back into work I’ve really started to get going with my project. The first step of my project was to propose an adjusted method for recording dental wear in human molars, which was completed before Christmas. This also included identifying the aging method, using human dentition, that would most be the most accurate and easy to apply and came to the conclusion of using the AlQahtani et al (2010) London Dental Atlas. About 2 years ago I wrote another blog piece discussing the accuracy of three different dental age estimate charts, including the London Atlas. The article describes the AlQahtani et al (2010) method in brief but the atlas itself can be viewed here.
The next step was to test out the method that I had created to assess how it worked when practically applied to human skulls. In order to do this I needed a good skeletal collection of the correct time period for my project (neolithic to medieval) that included juvenile and adults skulls. Luckily for me there is such a collection at Southampton and so it was very easy for me to get started! You can find out a bit more about the teaching collection and courses that Southampton University at the following blog: BOS, curated by the wonderful Ellie!
So it’s now the beginning of February and I’ve managed to apply my method to the juvenile skulls twice and the adults once. My plan is to do this a few more times for each set of skulls and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that this will enable to tweek my method where necessary so that it is as easy and accurate to use as possible. The second reason is so that I can become comfortable with handling and identifying teeth, but also so that I get used to the process of recording the data. This will be particularly useful when I move on to different skeletal collections, where I will only have a short period of time with them.
Finally, and probably most importantly, recording the data from the same set of skulls, multiple times will allow me to test the repeatability of my method. In order for this method to be robust and accurate it must produce statistically similar results when applied to the same collection, this will ensure that any results obtained using this method can be comparable. When recording the data from the same collection of skulls I am making sure that there is a period of time in between each data collection. This ensures that I cannot remember any particular individual and all of the collected data is ‘new’ again.
So far, the data collection is going well and I am getting through the skulls in the time that I wanted. Another key aspect of my project is to produce a method that is quick and easy to apply, and at the moment that’s going to plan so fingers crossed it stays that way!
I probably won’t do another blog post on the progress of my PhD for a little while as I won’t have much new to say until I’ve finished my data collection. However, I do plan to do a new blog post on molar identification (seeing as I’m getting pretty good at it now!). Hopefully, I’ll sort that out soon and get it posted!
Scrolling through the International Journal of Paleopathology I came across an article entitled ‘Ancient Down syndrome: An osteological case from Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, northeastern France, from the 5–6th century AD’ by Rivollat et al (2014). During my studies I only came across Down Syndrome in genetics it is caused by a partially or complete third copy of chromosome 21, which is why it can be called trisomy 21. I didn’t know much about the physical manifestations of Down syndrome and therefore thought this article might be an interesting read.
Down syndrome is not well documented in human history and only two sub-adult cases have been reported in the archaeological literature. However, it is noted that there is a large amount of variation seen in cases of Down syndrome which makes it difficult to interpret. This study looks at a child’s skull, aged 5-7 years old, from a necropolis dated to 5-6th Century in France. The skull used for study was buried in the same manner as the other skeletons, indicating that it did not have receive different treatment at death.
The individual in question had good bone preservation, although most of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae and the right hand were missing. This skeleton was originally excavated in 1989, were a photograph was taken in situ (see above). However, post cranial skeleton was lost after this which meant that the current study could only use the skull for analysis. This skull was then compared to 78 skulls of children of similar age and background to look for signs of Down syndrome.
By taking morphometric observations and comparisons some variation of the skull was found. To begin with the cephalic index was larger than the population mean of 83 measuring at 106.2. This is a ration between the maximum width of the head and the maximum length. In the skulls result indicated ‘ultrabrachycrany; i.e.. a skull which was short in length and wider than the norm. This large width of the cranium has been described in Down syndrome patients. The shape of the occipital bone also differs from normal, which is dish shaped, and is flattened in the skull. When observing the sutures the some of the metopic suture was still present and many lambdoid wormian bones were seen. Wormian bones are irregular, isolated bones located within sutures of the cranium, in this case the lambdoid suture which separates the occipital bone from the parietals. These features are also indications of Down syndrome.
The mandible was also examined and measured and slight variations from the norm were found. These included a short mandibular symphysis and a narrowing of the breadth of the mandibular ramus. The angle of the jaw, the gonial angle, was slightly above normal. These are features which have been noted by Kisling (1966) and others referenced in the article.
Another area of interest was the thickness of the skull vault and by using CT scans an accurate measurement could be taken. It was found that the thickness varied over the skull and at anatomical points were inside and outside of the normal range. At the bregma (point at which the coronal suture is intersected perpendicularly by the sagittal suture) and at the naison (intersection of the frontal and two nasal bones) the skull is of normal thickness. At the lambda (meeting point of sagittal and lambdoid sutures) the it is thinner but thicker at the euryon (point on parietal bone marking either end of the greatest transverse diameter of the skull). The authors claim that the thinness at the back of the skull could be due to poor development of the bone and can be associated with Down syndrome.
For those who are unfamiliar with the anatomical names and points of the skull visit the following web pages. These Bones of Mine provides images and diagrams of the bones of the skull whilst Anatomy Navigator provides a good overview of the anatomical landmarks.
Finally the study looked at the indention of the individual and the authors state that there are many features which are suggestive of Down syndrome. This includes a lack of development of the second lower deciduous premolar, which can affect up to 92% of Down syndrome cases. There is an indication of the onset of peridontal disease by the presence of bone remodelling of the alveolar bone, and which may have caused some tooth loss.
From these features a diagnosis of Down syndrome was assigned, with a differential diagnosis of rickets and hydrocephalus. However these were ruled out due to the lack of porotic hyoerostosis for rickets and the presence of a normal cranial capacity for the child’s skull. Therefore the skull was given the diagnosis Down syndrome.
Whilst reading this article I did have some concerns about the diagnosis. At the beginning of the article the authors state that there have been few cases of Down syndrome found in the archaeological record, which means they have very few points of comparison. The second issue is that the diagnosis was based solely on the skull, as the post cranial skeleton was missing. As I know little about the physical manifestations of Down syndrome I did a quick search and it was very clear that these were very varied. There also appear to be few definite indicators of Down syndrome on the skeleton, and particularly lacking on the skull (this information was indicated from the following website). taking this into account I think that it was a little unwise to assign the skeleton excavated in the study as having Down syndrome, it may have been more accurate to suggest a possible incidence of the condition.
In fairness to the authors they do state that ‘none of the features is pathognomonic’ (p. 13) however I may have been more conservative in the conclusion, particularly with the absence of the post cranial skeleton.
Rivollat, M., Castex D., Hauret L. & Tillier A. (2014). “Ancient Down syndrome: An osteological case from Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, northeastern France, from the 5–6th century AD.” International Journal of Paleopathology 7(0): 8-14.
Recently I have wanted to focus more on human pathologies in archaeology when I came across this article ‘Shattered lives and broken childhoods: Evidence of physical child abuse in ancient Egypt.’ I have never come across an example of this before and therefore gave it a read.
Child abuse is clinically classified as the maltreatment of a child by their parent or caretakers and can include physical, sexual and emotional abuse and physical and/or emotional neglect. In modern cases soft tissue damage and injuries are the most common presentation with 10 – 70% of children showing signs of skeletal trauma. In archaeology it is these latter injuries which may be seen however, it can be difficult to interpret them.
There are many reasons why confusion may occur when attempting to establish child abuse in skeletonised individuals. The first is establishing whether the trauma is a result of an accident or not. Traumas, such as fractures, may look the same no matter how they were obtained. However, the pattern of any pathologies identified, along with their process of healing, may be a good indicator. The use of physical discipline has also been recorded in the archaeology, for example during the Roman Period where it was not uncommon for children to be beaten if they made a mistake. There have been few examples of child abuse found during excavations, which may be a result of poor preservation and preparation, taphonomic processes or adult centred research and therefore does not mean that child abuse didn’t occur in past human societies, only that few cases have been confirmed.
This study by Williams et al. (2013) looks at an individual aged between 2 and 3 years old from the Romano-Christian Period from a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. In total 770 individuals were excavated, with a possible 4000 burials being present as indicated by an archaeological survey. From these 158 were 0 -1 years old, including the individual chosen for study. Burial 519 was undisturbed and had all of their teeth and bones, the preservation was also very good and therefore some hair, skin and nails survived. This individual was buried in the same manner as the other juveniles within the cemetery and it’s location did not distinguish it as being atypical. In order to study the individual full radiographs, micro-CT scans and tissue samples were taken, in addition to the standard ontological observations.
Burial 519 was aged using standard ageing methods by identifying the dental development and epiphyseal fusion of the individual. It was also observed that cribra orbitalia (an indication of a pathological deficiency) could be seen in both orbits. The authors noted that 60% of 1-3 year olds at the cemetery had this condition, with 95% of individuals having active lesions. The remaining pathologies recorded for the individual in Burial 519 related to fractures, a full summary of which can be found in Table 1, page 75 of the article.
These fractures were found in both upper arm bones, the clavicle, two ribs, two vertebrae and the pelvis. The healing process of these injuries differ and therefore suggests that they occurred at different times. For example, both humeri have complete transverse fractures of the proximal third where the bone margins are slightly rounded and the trabecular bone has a smooth appearance. This indicates that the breaks occurred several weeks before death whilst the fractures of the 7th left and 8th right ribs are well healed. In contrast to these breaks the right clavicle has a complete transverse fracture where there are no signs of healing. From looking at these sites alone it is fairly clear that all of the injuries did not occur at the same time.
This pattern of fractures and healing is consistent with clinical pattern of skeletal trauma in victims of non-accidental trauma; i.e. physical child abuse. This point is expanded on in the article with particular focus on the clavicle. The article states that accidental clavicle fractures are rare in children under the age of two (Carty 1997) and are usually a result of violent shaking of the arms by causing sudden traction. In older children these fractures can occur by falling. When combined with information about the ribs and humeri fractures the conclusion of child abuse can be justified in the individual of Burial 519. Fractures found in the humeri can be associated with direct blows of high energy and the bone formation at the diaphysis, mentioned in the article, indicates the limbs being pulled forcefully when being shaken which caused the periosteum to be stripped from the bone. Finally, the ribs are good indication that child abuse has occurs as fractures to these bones are very rare, even in violent trauma.
It is not enough to use the fractures present to determine a case of child abuse, and the authors used isotopic analysis to investigate the child’s diet. It was found that there was a depletion in nitrogen and carbon, and it is suggested that this may have been caused by a reduced consumption of protein rich foods. In addition to this a comparison of Burial 519’s pathologies to other the juveniles to shed light on the causation. The overall trauma rate of the excavated individuals was 5.7% in individuals aged 0 -15 years. There was only one other juvenile who had multiple fractures and it was found that these all occurred in one single event (Wheeler 2009) and related to an accidental event; such as a fall or high-verlocity impact. This makes the skeleton in Burial 519 unique.
By taking a comparative and holistic approach the authors suggest that the majority of the fractures seen in Burial 519 are a result of non-accidental trauma and could be classified as child abuse. It is suggested that this behaviour is not usual for the society as few traumas were present in other juvenile skeletons. This skeleton may be the oldest case of non-accidental trauma in the archaeological record; although it is unlikely that it will be the oldest on. Other examples may have been looked over due to poor preservation or excavation.
Wheeler, S. M., L. Williams, et al. (2013). “Shattered lives and broken childhoods: Evidence of physical child abuse in ancient Egypt.” International Journal of Paleopathology 3(2): 71-82.