Into the GrooveMay 28, 2012 About my museum job, Archaeology, Blogs, Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, MOLA Osteology
People are much easier to deal with when they are dead. This is a thought which has occurred to me many times during my time at the Museum of London – usually as I make my way home on the Circle Line during rush hour! But fear not, I do not harbour any homicidal impulses, I’ve simply been having a wonderful time looking at the remains of around 1,000 ancient Londoners at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.
These skeletons come from a wide selection of London’s medieval and post-medieval cemeteries and the information they have given me will form an integral part of my PhD, looking at how health in childhood might have determined how long people lived in the past.
This is a topic which has been studied in modern day populations, where researchers can keep a record of birth-weight, childhood illnesses and growth rates to see if there is a link between childhood health and the types of diseases that people develop in later life. Projects like these have discovered that people who develop conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are much more likely to have been ill as babies and children, and even may have developed too slowly in the womb. However, the levels of health in modern populations are generally very good and if children do become ill we have medicines and other medical treatments to make them better. I am trying to find out how poor childhood health affected long-term health in the past when exposures to illnesses and infections happened much more frequently and children had little more than their own immune systems to help them recover.
Unfortunately we do not have medical records for people in archaeological populations, so instead we must look at their skeletons for signs that indicate how well they grew during childhood. Periods of ill health which disrupt the growth of children can leave marks on their bones and teeth which can still be detected once they reach adulthood. One of the marks I am looking for is linear enamel hypoplasia. Permanent, adult teeth begin to grow when a person is just a few days old and are fully formed by six years of age. Poor health and malnutrition can disrupt enamel formation and leave horizontal bands or grooves on the crowns of teeth which do not grow out and stay there permanently. If an adult skeleton has these marks on their teeth we know they experienced periods of ill health between birth and six years of age.
By looking for linear enamel hypoplasias and other marks like them in adult skeletons it is possible to see how well that person grew as a child and find out whether they grew up in a healthy, hygienic environment or if conditions were poor and led to many illnesses and diseases. We then look at how old that person was when they died to see if individuals who were unhealthy as children had a shorter adult lifespan.
Large sample sizes are crucial when looking at epidemiological processes like these and Jelena, Mike and Veronica have been wonderfully accommodating to bring 1,000 skeletons out from their shelves in the rotunda and into the office on a trolley which carries just 12 skeletons at a time. Mike in particular has heaved so many boxes around that he has probably developed muscles that would make Eugen Sandow jealous. So now I am returning to my office at Reading University after three months at the museum, having taken over 31,000 skeletal measurements, drunk around 400 cups of tea, and consumed so many biscuits I cannot bear to think about it. The CHB is an amazing resource for students like myself and other researchers who study human remains and the information we gain from these London skeletons will help to solve many of the mysteries which surround experiences of life and death in the past. For this, it is worth travelling on the Underground at rush hour.