Close to the bone

Bones from the Museum of London's teaching collection
Bones from the Museum of London’s teaching collection

Summer holidays

Continuing my explorations into bones of all types, I spent an evening at the Museum of London in the company of Jelena Bekvalac. She’s Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology. A large crowd joined me to hear about the skeletons under London’s streets.

The Centre looks after 20,000 human skeletal remains. These emerged from archaeological digs (think Time Team) ahead of construction projects in London’s recent building boom.  Nothing in the collection is less than 100 years old – it starts in prehistoric London, continues through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods and ends in the 19th century. Mostly they unearth bone, very little is soft tissue. On a good day they find a high-status lead-lined coffin, perhaps revealing hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and moustache, often still vibrant with colour.

“It’s difficult to stay in one place in perpetuity” Jelena commented in a deadpan voice. It seems careful burial rites at the time of death are important. But digs show that in the past Londoners randomly moved or rearranged skeletons from old burial grounds as the city grew. Most people are buried lying down on their backs – if someone is face down they’ve done bad deeds while alive. Face and ribs are often damaged, being more fragile than other body parts.

My interest is in the living, moving body. But Jelena is like a detective, interrogating bones after death, often centuries later. I was surprised how much she can tell about movement patterns, illness and general health just by analysing bones.

There can be changes from arthritis, scoliosis or gout. Male and female skeletons are different, usually in size and shape of skull and pelvis.  She estimates age from teeth, bone length, wear and tear, and whether bones have fused and cartilage ossified. The younger the skeleton, the more accurate the estimates. It seems the body can age assymetrically, so some bones seem younger than others. To deal with this she looks at both sides of the body before deciding on age.

An acute disease, like Black Death or fever, kills quickly and leaves little trace in the bone. But chronic illnesses have plenty of time to change bone health. She can’t often identify what did kill someone, but to her it’s obvious what didn’t. Old fractures, amputations, holes in the skull can heal over time, even from a period before antibiotics. A life lived with osteoporosis or arthritis is visible in the bone – painful but not fatal.

The evening left me pondering what story my own bones would tell.

Skeleton from the Black Death

The skeleton above was a victim of the Black Death in London from 1348-9. It belongs to a man who died between the ages of 18 and 25. Bone analysis suggests he moved to London from central or eastern England around the age of 5. He was breastfed in infancy, suffered nutritional health stress, and had a largely plant-based diet.  He had dental caries and gum disease. The skeleton was lent by the Museum of London to Charterhouse Museum, which was built on top of London’s largest cemetery for Black Death victims, and where it is now on display.


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