Quick Tips: Archaeological Techniques –Use of Isotopes in Archaeology.

Isotopic analysis is widely used within the worlds of archaeology and anthropology. From analysing isotopes we’re able to uncover a wide range of information regarding the past; ranging from palaeoenvironments to palaeodiets, and even using isotopes to reconstruct trade routes of materials.

But first, what are isotopes?

All of the chemical elements consist of atoms which are specific to the element and the mass of an atom is dictated by the number of protons and neutrons it contains. The identity of the chemical element depends on the number of protons found within the atom’s nucleus, but the number of neutrons within the atom can vary. Atoms of the same chemical element (same number of protons), but with different masses, which is from the varying amount of neutrons, are called isotopes.

Stone Circle at Drombeg

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. These isotopes can be found within water, livestock, crops and plants, which can then be used to reconstruct palaeodiets and palaeoenvironments.

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. For a great majority of elements these relative proportions of isotopes are fixed, but there are a group of elements which either due to chemical or biochemical processes are of variable isotopic composition. These elements are oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. Another group of isotopes that are used for analysis are strontium, lead and neodymium. These are formed by elements which contain stable but radiogenic isotopes, which are formed by radioactive decay of another element. Carbon and nitrogen isotope composition are primarily used to reconstruct diets, and oxygen isotopes are used to determine geographic origin. Strontium and lead isotopes found within teeth and bone can sometimes be used to reconstruct migration patterns in human populations and cultural affinity

Isotopes Table

A table of the various elemental isotopes that are valuable in archaeological and anthropological research.

But how do isotopes get into skeletal remains?

Carbon isotopes are taken up through the diet of animals during their lifetime and these isotopes are deposited into teeth and bones of humans when they are consumed and digested. By studying animal bones and examining the 12C and 13C isotope ratio, it is possible to determine whether the animals ate predominately 3C or 4C plants. Oxygen isotopes are constantly being taken up and deposited into the body through the water a population drinks. This process ends with the organism’s death, from this point on isotopes no longer accumulate in the body, but do undergo degradation. For best result the researcher would need to know the original levels, or estimation thereof, of isotopes in the organism at the time of its death.

By creating a map of these natural occurring isotopes in different environments, rivers and areas, it is possible to identify where in an area the population lived, sourced their water or where the livestock grazed, by comparing the levels of isotopes that were obtained from skeletal remains to the environmental map. This mapping can also help identify trade routes that once existed and can also identify the migration patterns of populations.

References:

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

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

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!

Textbook of the Week: Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology.

Every week we highlight one archaeology/anthropology textbook from our suggested readings, a full list of our suggested resources can be found here, on our Useful Literature page.

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Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (UK/Europe Link)
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology  (US/Worldwide Link)
by Timothy Darvill. Rating: *****

“Does exactly as the title says – it is very concise, making it handy to have for your written assignments or dissertations, especially when you’re having trouble with interpretations of archaeological features! It is also useful to decipher what is being said within published papers by breaking down the archaeological jargon into layman terms if you’re a beginner!

If you’re a student – check out our ‘Quick Tips’ posts where we breakdown topics of AAFS into bite-sized chunks. We’re currently covering how to age and how to estimate the biological sex of skeletal remains, and also how to identify dental diseases!

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental Caries.  

In our previous Quick Tip post on identifying dental diseases, we gave a basic overview on the disease dental/enamel hypoplasia. If you haven’t read it, you can find it by clicking here.

Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, is thought to be the most common of dental diseases. This is due to it being recorded within archaeological populations more frequently than other dental diseases. It is an infectious and spreadable disease, which is the result of the fermentation of carbohydrates by bacteria that are present within teeth plaque. Its appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

dental caries

Dental caries appearance can sometimes be observed as small opaque spots on the crowns of teeth, to large gaping cavities.

Dental caries occurs when sugars from the diet, particularly sucrose, are fermented by the bacteria Lactobacilus acidophilus and Streptococcys mutans, which are found within the built up plaque. This fermentation process causes acids to be produced, which in turn break down and demineralises teeth leaving behind cavities.

Powell (1985) divided the causes of dental caries into different areas, which are;

  • Environmental factors, the trace elements in food and water (i.e fluoride in water sources may protect against caries).
  • Pathogenic factors, the bacterial causing the disease.
  • Exogenous factors, from diet and oral hygiene.
  • Endogenous factors, the shape and structure of teeth.

Any part of the tooth structure that allows the accumulation of plaque and food debris can be susceptible to caries. This means that the crowns of the tooth (especially with molars and premolars due to the fissures), and the roots of the teeth are the areas most commonly affected by dental caries.

References:

Lukacs, J.R. 1989. Dental paleopathology: methods for reconstructing dietary patterns. In M.Y. Iscan and K.A.R. Kennedy (eds), Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York, Alan Liss, pp. 261-86.

Powell, M.L. 1985. The analysis of dental wear and caries for dietary reconstruction. In R.I. Gilbert and J.H. Mielke (eds), Analysis of prehistoric diets. London, Academic Press, pp. 307-38.

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 392-398.

This is the second post of the Quick Tips series on identifying dental diseases. The next post in this series will focus on how to identify calculus (calcified plague), and highlight the cause of this dental disease. To read more Quick Tips in the meantime, click 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 are good? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page for suggestions from peers and professors!

Textbook of the Week: The Archaeology of Human Bones.

Every week we highlight one archaeology/anthropology textbook from our suggested readings, a full list of our suggested resources can be found here, on our Useful Literature page.

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The Archaeology of Human Bones (UK/Europe Link)
The Archaeology of Human Bones (US/Worldwide Link)
by Simon Mays. Rating: *****

“This text book is a amazing to use as a reference, as its very thorough. It’s not as easy to follow as Human Remains in Archaeology: A Handbook by Charlotte Roberts, but is perfect for anthropology and archaeology students who want to get a full grasp on the subject, and learn everything there is to know!

If you’re a student – check out our ‘Quick Tips’ posts where we breakdown topics of AAFS into bite-sized chunks. We’re currently covering how to age and how to estimate the biological sex of skeletal remains, and also how to identify dental diseases!

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – Dental/Enamel Hypoplasia.

In our previous Quick Tip post on identifying dental diseases, we gave a basic overview on the different diseases that are observed. If you haven’t read it, you can find it by clicking here.

Dental hypoplasia is a condition that affects the enamel of a tooth. It is characterised by pits, grooves and transverse lines which are visible on the surface of tooth crowns. The lines, grooves and pits that are observed are defects in the enamels development. These defects occur when the enamel formation, also known as amelogenesis, is disturbed by a temporary stress to the organism which upsets the ameloblastic activity. Factors which can cause such stress and therefore disrupt the amelogenesis include; fever, malnutrition, and hypocalcemia.

Figure 1: An example of linear enamel hypoplasia.

Figure 1: An example of linear enamel hypoplasia.

It has been noted that enamel hypoplasia is more regularly seen on anterior teeth than on molars or premolars, and that the middle and cervical portions of enamel crowns tend to show more defects than the incisal third. This is due to the amelogenesis beginning at the occlusal apex of each tooth crown and proceeding rootward, towards where the crown then meets the root at the cervicoenamel line.

Figure 2: Anatomy of a tooth. Note the top third is known as either the occlusal third if in molars, or the incisal third when the tooth is an incisor or canine.

Figure 2: Anatomy of a tooth. Note the top third is known as either the occlusal third if in molars, or the incisal third when the tooth is an incisor or canine.

By studying these incidents of enamel hypoplasia within a population sample, we can be provided with valuable information regarding patterns of dietary stress and disease that may have occurred within the community.

References:

Lukacs, J.R. 1989. Dental paleopathology: methods for reconstructing dietary patterns. In M.Y. Iscan and K.A.R. Kennedy (eds), Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York, Alan Liss, pp. 261-86.

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 392-398.

This is the second post of the Quick Tips series on identifying dental diseases. The next post in this series will focus on how to identify dental caries and highlight the cause of this dental disease.

To read more Quick Tips in the meantime click here, or to learn about basic fracture types and their characteristics/origins click here!

Textbook of the Week: Forensic Archaeology Advances in Theory and Practice.

Every week we highlight one archaeology/anthropology textbook from our suggested readings, a full list of our suggested resources can be found here, on our Useful Literature page.

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Forensic Archaeology Advances in Theory and Practice (UK/Europe Link)
Forensic Archaeology Advances in Theory and Practice (US/Worldwide Link)
by John Hunter & Margaret Cox. Rating: ****

“This text book is easy to follow, so perfect for beginners or first year students. It uses numerous case studies and illustrations to show you how to apply it in practice, meaning that you can fully grasp what situation to use it in and how to correctly apply it.

If you’re a student – check out our ‘Quick Tips’ posts where we breakdown topics of AAFS into bite-sized chunks. We’re currently covering how to age and how to estimate the biological sex of skeletal remains, and also how to identify dental diseases!

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – The Basics.

Quick Tips: Identifying Dental Diseases – The Basics.

In a previous Quick Tip post we briefly touched on teeth in anthropology/archaeology by providing a basic answer to the question, “What can an anthropologist tell from the examination of teeth?”, which can be found by clicking here.

“No structures of the human body are more likely to disintegrate during life than teeth, yet after death none have greater tenacity against decay” – Wells, 1964.

Teeth are the hardest and most chemically stable tissues in the body; because of this, they’re sometimes the only part of a skeletal remain to withstand the excavation. Even though teeth are the most robust structures of a skeleton, there are numerous diseases that can affect them. This is due to teeth interacting directly with the environment and therefore are vulnerable to damage from physical and biological influences. It is from these diseases, that archaeologists and anthropologists can learn a wealth of information on an individual or population’s diet, oral hygiene, dental care and occupation.

Lukacs, 1989, classified dental diseases into four categories, which are;

  • Infectious – This is one of the more common disease types found within archaeological populations. An example of an infectious dental disease is caries.
  • Degenerative – This is where the dental disease occurs over time as the person ages. An example of degenerative dental disease includes recession of the jaw bone.
  • Developmental –These dental diseases develop due to environmental and lifestyle factors, such as malnutrition. An example of this type of disease is enamel hypoplasia.
  • Genetic – These types of diseases are caused by genetic anomalies.

The main dental diseases that are observed within an archaeological or anthropological context are;

If the dental disease 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.

Each of these dental diseases has their own characteristics which allows them to be easily distinguished from one and another. In the next few posts of this Quick Tips series, we will be focusing on each dental disease individually, and highlighting their aetiology and physical characteristics.

References:

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

Lukacs, J.R. 1989. Dental paleopathology: methods for reconstructing dietary patterns. In M.Y. Iscan and K.A.R. Kennedy (eds), Reconstruction of life from the skeleton. New York, Alan Liss. Pg 261-86.

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

Wells, C. 1964. Bones, bodies and disease. London, Thames and Hudson.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 392-398.

This is the first post of the Quick Tips series on identifying dental diseases. The next post in this series will focus on how to identify dental/enamel hypoplasia and highlight the cause of this dental disease.

To read more Quick Tips in the meantime, click here, or to learn about basic fracture types and their characteristics/origins click here!