A team of scientists at the Natural History Museum have been carrying out detailed analysis of human remains recovered throughout London which are cared for in the museum’s collections. They have uncovered fascinating insights into lives and deaths of the people that once lived in the capital.
They determined biographical information from the skeleton such as age and sex, and some diseases or pathologies they might have had. Bone pathologies can be related to disease, many of which can also be linked to aging. Here Rosalind Wallduck details how we can spot these bone changes in human skeletons from the past.
Bone changes and age estimation
If you’re an adult under 30, you might be surprised to learn that you are probably still growing. No, not growing taller. But the caps at the ends of your bones, known as epiphyses, are probably still fusing. The medial end of our clavicle, or collar bone, is documented as the last of the long bones in the body to complete fusion, occurring anytime between 18 and 30 years of age.
Once an individual hits 30, I am afraid it is downhill. Bone changes no longer occur due to development and growth, but instead due to wear and tear. For an anthropologist these changes are useful for estimating the age of an individual. In particular, the degree of bone degeneration on the pubic symphysis (where the two bones of the pelvis meet at the front) the auricular surface (where the bones of the pelvis articulate with the sacrum) and the sternal end of the fourth rib (where the rib attaches to cartilage at the front of the ribcage) are studied. From analyses on modern day populations of known age, different degrees of these degenerative changes have been assigned an age range.
Neoplastic disease such as cancer can be associated with aging. It is only when it effects the bone, such as in the case of a metastasising tumour, that cancer is recognisable in the archaeological record. It is sometimes considered a modern disease; an unfortunate result of an aging population in a world with more pollutants and lifestyle choices. But there have been findings in the archaeological record that suggest this might not be the case. The skeleton of an old man found in an early medieval cemetery in Slovakia showed bone changes from what is believed to have been a metastatic carcinoma spreading from the soft tissue to the bone.
Joint disease is a commonly observed pathology in the archaeological record. Osteoarthritis in particular is common, occuring from wear and tear on the joints and having hypertropic (bone forming) and erosive effects. Wear and tear can be exacerbated by activities, such as kneeling for a long amount of time or carrying heavy loads. It can also result from being overweight which puts extra strain on the joints. The cartilage in the joints begins to wear away and eventually the bones rub together. This can lead to polishing (eburnation), erosion of the joint surface and new bone growth (osteophytes).
In the archaeological record osteoarthritis is often seen on the vertebrae, hips, and the temporomandibular joint. While analysing human remains from London we noted a large number of post-medieval people suffered from mild arthritis of the jaw (temporomandibular joint), evident from erosion of the bone surface. There were occasional instances where the spine had been affected, with ‘schmorl’s nodes’ (pitting) and lipping observed on the surface of the vertebral bodies.
Other degenerative bone diseases
Other diseases than can also be associated with age include rheumatoid arthritis (the earliest identified example of which in the U.K. is from a Medieval abbey at Abingdon), ankylosing spondylitis and gout. Gout is caused by increased uric acid in the blood, which can crystallise and be deposited in joints. This causes swelling and pain, and is perhaps commonly attributed to a diet high in red meat and so has been associated with the rich. In severe cases this causes erosion of the joint surfaces. Men, particularly older men, are more likely to develop gout than women.
Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (or Forestier’s disease): DISH
Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH) causes ossification of ligamants surrounding the spine. Effectively the ligaments turn to bone and the spine can eventually ankylose (fuse) together. A smooth ‘candle-wax’ appearance of this extra bone growth is characteristic of DISH. It is a disease that more commonly affects males, particularly ones of older age and is associated with Type II diabetes.
by Dr Rosalind Wallduck
Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between? Nature reviews: Cancer
- London human remains – Ludgate Hill collection
- London human remains – The Green Ground collection
The Human Remains Digitisation Project was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust.