B is for Bodies

b for bodies

B is for Bodies: What can archaeologists learn from bodies?

With the aid of blogger and archaeologist HollyMae Steane Price, we are working our way through the alphabet, looking at the A-Z of archaeology, one letter at a time. Today’s article is brought to you by the letter B…

The leg bone’s connected to the… knee bone. Most of us know that skeleton song, but what do we really know about our skeletons? And what really happens to our bodies once they are buried? It all depends upon many different factors including: the age, gender and size of the person, whether they had any injuries or illnesses when they died, and how deep and in what environment they were buried.

The soil in which a body is buried makes a difference to the preservation of the body.

Acidic soils tend to attack bones and destroy their structure. If you find a skeleton which has been buried in these types of soils for a long time, you’ll likely find that the bones have deteriorated quite dramatically and are likely to take on a spongy texture. Depending on the acidity level of the soil and the length of time the body has been buried, you may find all the bones have disintegrated, with just a shadow in the soil being left behind. However, alkaline soils, which are usually formed in chalky areas, have the opposite effect. The calcites in the soil replace minerals in the bone and thus strengthen the bone’s structure, effectively preserving skeletons after they have been buried.

There are other ways in which bodies can be preserved much more completely.

Lindow Man, British Museum

You will probably have heard of bog bodies, these are bodies which have been discovered buried in peat bogs. The conditions within some bogs, a combination of acidic water, cool temperatures and lack of oxygen, preserve the bodies very well. There have been examples from all around the globe of bodies found with almost perfect preservation of bones, skins, hair, nails and even stomach contents. A fantastic example of this level of preservation is the Lindow Man, found in a peat bog near Wilmslow, who was discovered in 1984 with a trimmed beard and moustache, healthy teeth and manicured fingernails. The Lindow Man has been carbon dated to around 300BC showing just how effective peat bogs are at preserving organic materials.

Virtual autopsy of the Gebelein Man at the British Museum

Examples of preservation of bodies have also been found by archaeologists in areas of extreme conditions such as desert and ice. The Gebelein Man, now in the British Museum, is a good example of natural desert preservation. From CT scans we can now see exactly how this man died – with a stab wound to the back!

Ice is another natural way of preserving the body, so much so that we can even see the tattoos of the famous “Ice Man” Otzi, who died and was covered in ice around 3,300 CBE.

Excavations in the ice to find Otzi.

Once an archaeologist exhumes a body, what can we tell by studying it?

Even just looking at skeletal remains, archaeologists and anthropologists can tell a lot about an individual. This can be anything from their age, gender, ancestry and height. We can also often look at bones and tell whether a person had skeletal diseases such as arthritis or gout, whether they broke a bone during their lifetime and whether their wound had time to heal. Signs of healing can often tell us if a particular wound was the cause of death (for example, an axe wound to the head or a chop mark on a leg which shows no sign of healing). And, as gruesome as it sounds, we can even tell if the bones have been chewed upon by wild animals after a person died – teeth marks are sometimes visible on the bone!

So, even though we don’t regularly find bodies during our excavations, the ones we do find can tell us an awful lot about the life (and death) of the person before they were buried!


HollyMae Steane Price graduated with a BSc in Archaeology from Cardiff University and now holds an IfA workplace learning post as a Trainee Heritage Officer at the Brecon Beacons National Park

Twitter: @sapphonica

Personal Blog: http://hspheritage.com/


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