Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Chronological Age Of A Human Skeleton – Sternal Rib End Method.

This Quick Tips post is the sixth 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 pubic symphyseal surface method of ageing, whereas the first post covers the basics.

The method was primarily developed by Iscan and Loth (1986) who studied the metamorphosis of the sternal end of the fourth rib. They found that the metamorphosis corresponds to the age but does vary by sex.

In their study they examined the “form, shape, texture and overall quality” of the sternal end which is found at the anterior (ventral) end of the shaft. This end is a roughened, porous, cupped oval surface which attaches to the cartilage attached to the sternum.  From this they were able to define a series of phases that depict the metamorphism of the sternal rib end over time.

Rib anatomy

Anatomy of the rib cage. This method was primarily developed by Iscan and Loth (1986) who studied the metamorphosis of the sternal end of the fourth rib. They found that the metamorphosis corresponds to the age but does vary by sex.

At the start the sternal end is flat or billowy with regular and rounded edges, and over time its rim thins and become irregular, with the surface porosity increasing, and the end becomes irregular. This method can be applied cautiously to the 3rd or 5th ribs as well, but not the others.

References:

Iscan, M.Y., and Loth, S.R. 1986. Estimation of age and determination of sex from the sternal rib. In: K. J. Reichs (ed.) Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of Human Remains. Springfield, Illinois. Pg 68-89.

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!

 

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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!

Quick Tips – Common Questions: Why are some diseases more easily identified on skeletal remains than others?

This is a Quick Tips post providing a basic answer to a commonly asked question often faced within the field of archaeology and anthropology.

Some diseases are more easily to identify on skeletal remains due to leaving tell-tale signs in the bones preservation. An easy example of this is osteoporosis; this condition leaves the inners of bones a lot more porous which is easier to visually assess and compare to a ‘healthy’ individual’s skeletal remains.

canstockphoto18602582

Some diseases are more easily to identify on skeletal remains due to leaving tell-tale signs in the bones preservation. An  example of this is osteoporosis; this condition leaves the inners of bones a lot more porous than normal bones.

A study by Hershkovitz & Rothschild (1997) highlighted how certain medical conditions, in their study sickle cell anaemia, affects the bone growth and development. Hershkovitz & Rothschild found that due to the iron deficiency from sickle cell anaemia caused porotic hyperostosis (symmetrical osteoporosis) on the parietal bone as well as others. They were able to visually diagnose this due to the characteristic ‘pores’ over the skull.

Another example of an easily identifiable disease is tuberculosis (TB), TB can cause devastating bone damage. A recent archaeological study by Lewis (2011) looked into a population who suffered from TB. Lewis visually analysed the skeletal remains of a juvenile population from Poundbury Camp, Dorset. The TB infection caused numerous ailments to the infected, such as fever, but it’s the skeletal damage which gave the indication that the person suffered.  Amongst the population there was a high instance of skeletons with necrosis and lytic lesions characterised by minimal bone formation.  Many of the juvenile’s vertebrae displayed new bone formations which could indicate the presence of a paravertebral abscess. Many of the metatarsals were also displaying evidence of new bone formation which they concluded could be indicative of tuberculous dactylitis. Osteomyelitis, infection of the bone, was also found on a few mandibles and visually diagnosed due to its characteristic small pores found in a localised area. It is this characterised skeletal damage, seen on numerous cases during known TB outbreaks, which cause more diseases to be easily identified by eye due to the skeletal anomalies.

There are problems when trying to differentiate certain diseases for example; TB with brucellosis (undulant fever). As they both produce spinal lesions it is necessary to observe the other characteristic skeletal damage (new bone formation and osteomyelitis) to correctly identify it as a TB infection. Another slight difference between TB and brucellosis is that the spinal lesions are more sclerotic and regular than those from a TB infection (Lewis, 2011).

These porous bones and unexpected bone formations are easily observed, as they are not what’s expected during the known skeletal development found in healthy persons. Problems arise with diseases that do no damage to the skeleton, but instead affect soft tissue and muscles. These illnesses are harder to identify as they decay over time leaving only trace elements in the surrounding soils which would then hold the key for disease identification.

References:

Hershkovitz, I. Rothschild, B. et al. 1997. Recognition of sickle cell anemia in skeletal remains of children. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Volume 104, Issue 2. 213-226.

Lewis, M. 2011. Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England. International Journal of Paleopathology. Volume 1, Issue 1. 12-23.

To learn how archaeologists and anthropologists use teeth to age skeletal remains, read our Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Chronological Age of a Human Skeleton – Using Dentition to Age Subadults. Or to read more of our interesting Quick Tips, click here.

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!

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!

Quick Tips: Archaeological Techniques – Aerial Photography.

Aerial photography is a surveying technique that involves taking a photographic record from satellites, aircrafts and balloons, to aid with the detection of buried archaeological remains and features, which may be difficult to identify at ground level.

There are two types of aerial photography;

  • Oblique – Oblique aerial photography involves taking a photograph from lower altitudes at an angle. This gives a better perspective and a pictorial effect, and allows for identification of earthworks.
  • Vertical – Vertical aerial photography involves taking a photograph from great heights directly above an area. This gives a bird’s eye view of an area, allowing for easier map making and identification of crop marks.
aerialphoto

Fig. 1: There are two types of aerial photography; oblique and vertical.

These aerial photographs can show numerous phenomena, some of which are sometimes not from archaeological origins. These phenomena include:

  • Crop marks – These types of marks develop when a buried wall or ditch increases or decreases crop growth; this is due to the feature affecting the availability of moisture and nutrients in the soil.
crop mark

Fig 2. An example of a crop mark. You can see in the excavation site the ditch that is affecting the crop’s growth.

  • Soil marks – These marks are caused by changes in the subsoil colour, when a plough brings part of the buried feature to the surface.
Fig. 3: After this field was ploughed, it has exposed the feature which has had parts brought to the surface.

Fig. 3: An example of soil marks. After this field had been ploughed, this buried feature had parts brought to the surface which has caused discolouration in the soil.

  • Earthworks – This phrase is used to describe any features seen in relief. These are also known as shadow marks when viewed from the air.
Fig. 4: This is an example of an earthwork. This particular archaeological site is an abandoned Medieval settlement.

Fig. 4: This is an example of an earthwork. This particular archaeological site is an abandoned Medieval settlement.

It is from these phenomena that we’re able to identify whether there is buried archaeology in an area which can then allow for an in-depth investigation.

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.

Click here to read more Quick Tip posts!

 

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!