Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Biological Sex Of A Human Skeleton – The Basics.

Within anthropological and archaeological sciences, ‘sex’ refers to the biological sex of an individual, based on the chromosomal difference of XX being female, and XY being male. Whereas ‘gender’ refers to the socio-cultural differences placed on the biological differences. In recent times, the words ‘gender’ and sex’ have been used incorrectly as interchangeable words within this discipline.

Therefore, it is important to remember that the word ‘gender’ refers an aspect of a person’s social identity, whereas ‘sex’ refers to the person’s biological identity.

Sexual dimorphism as seen in the human skeleton is determined by the hormones that are produced by the body. There are numerous markers on a human skeleton which can provide archaeologists and anthropologists with an estimate sex of the deceased. The areas of the skeletal remains that are studied are the:

 If the skeletal marker listed above is a link, it means that I have already covered it in an individual blog post and can be found by following the link.

The two most commonly used skeletal markers that are observed by osteologists are the skull and pelvic bone, as these show the most extreme differences.

It is generally noted that female skeleton elements are characterized by being smaller in size and lighter in construction, whereas males have larger, robust elements. Due to normal individual variation, there will always be smaller, dainty males and larger, robust females. Therefore, it is always important to observe a variety of skeletal markers to come to an accurate determination.

It should be noted that it is a lot harder to reliably deduce a juvenile/sub-adult’s sex, as many of the differences in skeletal markers only become visible after maturation, when the skeletal changes occur due to puberty. Therefore, use of DNA has been widely used to sex sub-adult skeletal remains as DNA analysis can now detect and identify X and Y chromosome-specific sequences.


Buikstra, J.E., Ubelaker, D.H. 1994. Standards for Data Collection From Human Skeletal Remains. Fayetteville, Arkansas: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Report Number 44.

Ubelaker, D.H. 1989. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Taraxacum.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 360-385.

This is the first of a Quick Tips series on sex determination of skeletal remains. The next post in this series will focus on the use of the skull to determine biological sex. To read more Quick Tips in the mean time, click here


On Location: Durotriges Project, 2014 – Roman Burials.


Today’s On Location is featuring the Durotriges Project, an excavation in Winterborne Kingston,  Dorset, UK, which is held by Bournemouth University.

This archaeological site shows significant Iron Age and Roman settlement, particularly with the Durotriges tribe and Roman interaction. The Durotriges Project has been a yearly excavation, starting in 2009, which has uncovered many archaeological features. Over the past five years, the site has unearthed an Iron Age banjo enclosure, two Roman villas, an Iron Age burial site and numerous storage pits.

During this years excavation they were able to uncover a Bronze Age food preparation area surrounded by storage pits, and a flint mine – which was used to source the materials needed to construct the settlement’s buildings. Within the flint mine, students discovered the skeletal remains of an 18 month old juvenile.

Food Prep area DBD2014

The Bronze Age food preparation area, defined by post holes with a hearth in the centre, that was discovered during the Durotriges Project 2014. A storage pit can be seen to the right.

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The flint mine that was discovered in Trench 2. Within this flint mine, students unearthed the skeletal remains of an 18 month old juvenile.

The Durotriges Project recently hit the news this year with its discovery of five Roman burials. The burials, thought to date between 350AD to 380AD, were uncovered within a 15 by 15m  square enclosure around 100m away from the previously found Roman villa.

Roman Burials Within Enclosure

The five Roman era burials, dated between 350AD and 380AD, which were discovered within a square enclosure.

The skeletal remains found within the five graves have been identified as two males and three females. The males and two females have been aged between 40-50 years old, and the other female aged between 80-90 years old. The individuals were buried within coffins, with evidence of them being clothed as eyelets from their shoes were discovered.


One of the five Roman burials uncovered by the Durotriges Project.

It is thought that they were of “high status” as were buried with great care and with burial gifts. It is hoped that the individuals were the occupants of the nearby Roman villa, and that their discovery will help shed light about the Roman’s diet, heath and ancestry.

To learn more about Bournemouth University’s Durotriges Project’s other fascinating discoveries from the site, you can view their blog here. Follow them on Twitter, and keep up to date with them by liking their Facebook page!

Unusual-ology: 800 year old monk’s skeletal remains found in a cliff face.

The recent winter storms that rocked Britain have uncovered a lot of the isles’ hidden archaeology including a petrified forest in Wales, but it has also damaged many coastal heritage sites. In this case, the storms unearthed the skeletal remains of what is thought to be an 800-year-old medieval monk, which were found poking out of a cliff in Monknash, South Wales.


The femurs belonging to the monk, as they were found within the cliff face.

The skeletal remains were discovered by Mandy Ewington, a member of public out for a walk, who spotted the thigh bones of sticking out the side of a cliff. The femurs were later identified to belonging to a man of good health and in his late twenties, who may have been a monk.

From past excavations in the area and stratigraphic evidence, it is thought that the skeletal remains belonged to a monk from the 1200’s. The Monknash area is well known to have once been the home of Cistercian monks between 1129 and 1535, and was the site of a Middle Age burial ground.


From stratigraphic evidence it is thought that the skeletal remains belonged to a monk from the 1200’s.

But due to the monk’s femurs being badly damaged by coastal erosion and were found unconnected to any other bones, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion on whether or not the man truly did belong to the Cistercian monastery.

Unique Aztec Dog Burial Discovered.

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have uncovered twelve dog skeletons whilst excavating in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Dog burials are a common practice within archaeology, but what stands this particular discovery out from the crowd is that there is no human burial, or even building associated to this burial.


One of the well-preserved dog skeletons found.

The reason why dogs were often found alongside human burials is linked back to the animal’s symbolism in Aztec mythology. It was believed that even after death, dogs still served their masters. The belief was that the dogs helped guide the owner’s soul through the hazardous underworld until they safely reached Mictlan, the resting place of the dead.


The placement of the dog skeleton’s have no pattern, leaving archaeologists wondering what is the significance behind this burial.

The dog’s skeletal remains have been date back to 500 years, and they were well-preserved and most were complete and articulated . Their placement within the burial ground has no discernible pattern to it, leaving the archaeologists wondering what the significance of this burial is, although archaeologists have deduced from the skeleton’s measurements that the dogs are likely to be common breeds as their stature are much taller than the native Mexican breed of Techichi.

Give-away: Etsy Handmade Archaeology/Anthropology Tool Roll Launch.

Etsy Header2

To celebrate the launch of our Etsy shop, which you can visit here https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/AllThingsAAFS, we are giving away one of our hand-crafted ‘Archaeology Traveller’ small finds/anthropology tool kits (pictured below)!


 The tool kit includes:

12x Stainless Steel Small Finds Archaeology Tools!
4x Tweezers – to allow you to delicately handle finds!
1x Sharpie permanent marker pen – for labelling tool find trays or bags!
1x Mechanical Pencil – to help you write when the weather is gloomy!
1x HB Pencil – to allow you to sketch your finds, and with extra room to add your own personal tools.
When opened the size of this tool roll is approximately 28x21cm, and will roll up to be 9x21cm.

To be in for a chance of winning this archaeology tool roll, just visit our competition Facebook post by clicking here and then ‘Like and Share’ it! Don’t forget to Like our page to receive updates from us!

Competition ends at 12:00pm on 12th March 2014, and the winner will be selected on the 14th March!

Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Chronological Age Of A Human Skeleton – Pubic Symphyseal Surface Method.

This Quick Tips post is the fifth in the series on age estimation on skeletal remains, if you haven’t read the previous post click here, or to start at the beginning click here. The previous post provides an overview of the cranial suture method of aging, whereas the first post covers the basics.

This method is one of the most common ways of chronically aging a human skeleton, and involves examining the surface of the pubis of the os coxae.

Over a lifetime the surface of the pubis change; in early adulthood the surface is rugged and is traversed by horizontal ridges and intervening grooves. By the age of thirty-five, the surface becomes smoother bound by a rim, as it loses relief. The pubic symphysis of an adult over the age of thirty-five, continues to erode and deteriorate with progressive changes.

These changes were first documented by Todd (1920) who conducted a study on 306 males of known age-at-death. Todd identified that there were four parts to the pubic symphysis, where he noted evidence of billowing, ridging, ossific nodules, and texture:

  1. The ventral border (rampart).
  2. The dorsal border (rampart).
  3. The superior extremity.
  4. The inferior extremity.

Using his observations, Todd identified ten phases of pubic symphysis age, ranging from eight/nine-teen years old to fifty-plus years.


After Todd’s (1920) method which only looked at males, Suchey-Brooks (1990) undertook a study that involved both female and male pubic symphyses – which allowed for a new symphysis scoring system to be created. This new scoring system is made up of six phases, which have a corresponding statistical analysis for the age that each stage represents. The six stages are as follows:

  1. Lack of delimitation of either superior/inferior extremity; Symphyseal face has a billowing surface (ridges and furrows), which usually extends to include the pubic tubercle. The horizontal ridges are well-marked, and ventral bevelling may be commencing. Although ossific nodules may occur on the either extremity.
  2. Surface has commencing delimitation of lower and/or upper extremities occurring with or without ossific nodules; Symphyseal face may still show ridge development. The ventral rampart may be in beginning phases as an extension of the bony activity at either or both extremities.
  3. Ventral rampart in process of completion; There can be a continuation of fusing ossific nodules forming the upper extremity and along the vetral border. Symphyseal face is smooth or can continue to show distinct ridges. Dorsal plateau is complete. Absence of lipping of symphyseal dorsal margin; no bony ligamentous outgrowths.
  4. Oval outline is complete, but a hiatus can occur in upper ventral rim; Symphyseal face is generally fine grained although remnants of the old ridge and furrow system may still remain. Pubic tubercle is fully separated from the symphyseal face by definition of the upper extremity. The symphyseal face may have a distinct rim. Ventrally, bony ligamentous outgrowths may occur on inferior portion of pubic bone adjacent to symphyseal face. If any lipping occurs, it will be slight and located on the dorsal border.
  5. Symphyseal face is completely rimmed with some slight depression of the face itself, relative to the rim; Moderate lipping is usually found on the dorsal border with more prominent ligamentous outgrowths on the ventral border. There is little or no rim erosion. Breakdown may occur on superior ventral border.
  6. Symphyseal face may show on-going depression as rim erodes; Ventral ligamentous attachments are marked. In many individuals the pubic tubercle appears as a separate bony knob. The face may be pitted or porous, giving an appearance of disfigurement with the on-going process of erratic ossification. Crenulations may occur. The shape of the face is often irregular at this stage.

Figure 2: The Suchey-Brooks pubic symphasis scoring system of the six stages. It is recommended that these illustrations be supplemented by casts before actual aging is attempted.


Table 1: Statistics for the Suchey-Brooks phases in females and males.

This pubis symphyseal surface method is often preferred over the other aging methods due to the age-related changes on the pubis surface continuing after full adult stature has occurred, for example; epiphyseal closing method can only age early adulthood.


Buikstra, J.E., Ubelaker, D.H. 1994. Standards for Data Collection From Human Skeletal Remains.Fayetteville, Arkansas: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Report Number 44.

Todd, T.W. 1920 Age changes in the pubic bone: I. The white male pubis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 3: 467-470.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 360-385.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!


Ancient Egyptian Brewer Tomb Unearthed.

A magnificent painted tomb belonging to an ancient Egyptian brewer has been discovered on the west bank of the Nile.

The painted T-shaped tomb is said to belong to Khonso Im-Heb, who is documented as being the head of granaries and beer-brewing for the worship of the Egyptian goddess, Mut.


Khono Im-heb, bare-headed, and his wife depicted in two rituals with Egyptian gods: Osiris (top left), and Anubis (top right).

The images that line the walls of the tomb illustrate numerous scenes of daily life, giving us an insight into the activities that occurred 3,000 years ago. The paintings colourfully show Khonso Im-Heb interacting with his wife and children, and their ritual practices for their worship of Mut.


Khonso Im-Heb and his wife being presented with an offering from their son.

The burial chamber was found in El Khokha, in the Valley of the Kings near the royal tombs. The tomb was unearthed by Japanese archaeologists, led by Jiro Kondo, from the Waseda University in Tokyo in December 2007.


If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy?” Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

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Aztec ‘Human Sacrifice’ Remains Found Under Mexico City Subway.

Archaeologists who surveyed a Mexico City subway in order for an extension to be performed have announced they made a startling discovery – unveiling what is thought to be remains of Aztec sacrifices.


One of the human remains found at the excavation site which was thought to be a human sacrifice – with offerings beside them.

The team of archaeologists, led by Maria de Jesus Sanchez from the Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (NIAH), have unearthed a dog’s skull with holes in it. As well as the dog skull, a female’s skull and two male skulls with the same indents were also found in close proximity.

It is thought that these skulls are the remains are from Aztec offerings, due to the bizarre nature of the holes that perforate the skulls. It is thought that these holes would have allowed the skulls to be displayed on a rack, known as a tzompantli, for the public to see. Tzompantli were commonly used within the ancient Aztec world for displaying the severed heads of captured warriors, who were sacrificed as an offering to the Gods.

The skulls have been dated back to between 1350 and 1521, and the discovery of the dog’s skull with such punctures is the first of its kind according to the NIAH, making it a very important find. It is thought that the dog was sacrificed because in some pre-Hispanic beliefs, a dog can accompany its owner in the afterlife.


The human skull, center, and dog skull, top right, that was discovered at the site.

But these skulls weren’t all that was found during this excavation – one hundred burials were also uncovered with the majority of the skeletons being juvenile.


  • NIAH. 2013. SKULLS OF A ‘TZOMPANTLI’ BETWEEN FINDINGS ON METRO LINE 12. Archaeology – Bulletins. Available here.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy?” Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

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Useful Literature.


If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy?”
On our ‘Useful Literature’ page you can find links to the full selection of the best textbooks – most of these have been suggested to me by my university Professors.

Here is a short-list of the most helpful student books for archaeology and anthropology:

Quick Tips: Use of Phytoliths in Archaeology.

Phytoliths are a very important identification tool in identifying plants within ancient environments, often even classifying down to the species of the plant.

But firstly, what are phytoliths? As the name phytolith suggests, coming from the Greek phyto- meaning plants and lith– meaning stone, they are tiny (less than 50µm) siliceous particles which plants produce. These phytoliths are commonly found within sediments, and can last hundreds of years as they are made of inorganic substances that do not decay when the other organic parts of the plant decay. Phytoliths can also be extracted from residue left on many different artefacts such as teeth (within the dental calculus), tools (such as rocks, worked lithics, scrapers, flakes, etc.) and pottery.


Table 1 & 2: Examples of the descriptors found within the International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature (ICPN), 2005, for use of naming phytoliths.
Figure 1: A bulliform phytolith under a microscope, ©Henri-Georges Nation.

Phytoliths can form numerous striking shapes within the plant cells (figure 1), which gives them a characteristic shape, thus aiding the identification of plants. Due to the vast number of shapes and sizes that phytoliths can come in, researchers compiled the International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature (ICPN), 2005. The ICPN was developed to create a standard protocol which is to be used during the process of naming and describing a new or known phytolith type, as well as a glossary of descriptors to help aid with the naming.

To observe phytoliths, a sediment sample needs to be collected preferably away from any human settlements, as the use of agriculture may have introduced non-native plants to the area. The soil sample is then observed under microscope or even scanning electron microscope (SEM). On the discovery of a phytolith after observation it needs to be named using a maximum of three descriptors, the ICPN (2005) can be used to correctly identify what descriptors should be used.

The first descriptor should be of the shape, either using 3D or 2D descriptor (whichever is more indicative/shows the phytoliths symmetry). The orientation of the phytolith should also be noted. The second descriptor should describe the texture and/or ornamentation, if characteristic or diagnostic and not an artefact of weathering.
The third descriptor should be the anatomical origin, but only when this information is clear and beyond doubt (Madella et al, 2005).

Phytoliths are very important and useful if the sediment they are taken from is hostile to the preservation of fossil pollen, so may be the only evidence available for paleoenvironment or vegetation change.


Balme, J., Paterson, A. 2006. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analayses. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pg 218.

Madella, M., Alexandre, A., Ball, T. 2005. International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature 1.0. Annals of Botany, 96: 253-260. A .pdf of this paper available here.  

Renfrew, C., Bahn, P. 1991. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. Pg 249-53.

Click here to read more Quick Tip posts!

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