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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First Early Iron Age Burials Found In Dorset.

Archaeologists have discovered crouched burials of three skeletons, which are believed to be from the Bronze or Iron Age in Long Bredy, Dorset.  They were uncovered during a watching brief, being undertaken by the National Trust, on routine drainage works at an 18th century Dorset cottage.

The skeletal remains, thought to have been between eighteen and twenty five years old, have been radiocarbon dated which suggests they were buried between eight and six hundred BC. Due to the thick soils in the area, archaeologists tend to only stumble upon archaeological finds by accident whilst carrying out maintenance.

Dorset Crouched Burials

Archaeologists have discovered crouched burials of three skeletons, which are believed to be from the Bronze or Iron Age in Long Bredy, Dorset. © Martin Papworth

This find is the first burial from this time era that has been discovered in Dorset, making it a very significant find for the region. “There are no previous burials from that time in Dorset so it is a very significant find from the period with little evidence for the disposal of the dead,” says Martin Papworth, one of the archaeologists from the National Trust. “It’s an important window into the past, the first clues of the people who lived in Dorset at the time.”

To read the Unusual-ology post on the Ancient Egyptian use of lettuce as an aphrodisiac, click here, or how male spiders sacrifice themselves to their mate, click here. To learn about the recent vampire burials, and past vampire burials, click here.

 

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!

Unusual-ology: “Amazonian Warrior” Burial Unearthed In Russia.

Archaeologists from the Russian Institute of Archaeology, led by Roman Mimohod, have made a fascinating discovery whilst supervising the construction of a new airport near the city of Rostov-on-Don. They have unearthed what seems to be a burial of an “Amazonian Woman”, but it is in fact the burial of a Sarmatian noblewoman, whose belongings have remained unlooted.

amazonian burial

he noblewoman’s grave remained intact and during the excavation over one hundred arrowheads were discovered along with numerous gold jewellery pieces.

The Sarmatians were nomadic people who once occupied the steppes north of the Black Sea between 5th Century BC and 4th Century AD. They were famous due to their fierce female warriors who are thought to be the inspiration for the legendary ‘Amazon Warriors’ of Greek Mythology.

The noblewoman’s grave remained intact and during the excavation over one hundred arrowheads were discovered along with numerous gold jewellery pieces, which date between 1st Century BC – 1st Century AD, and a gem that has a Phoenician inscription.

“It is rather unique, I have not seen such a combination before and have not heard about it,” Mimohood commented on the find. Due to the unusual long date range of the gold items discovered, Mimohood has remarked that “this can mean the most ancient things were handed down for a long time and finally were buried with this noble woman.”

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! or you’re 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 – 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.

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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.

Unusual-ology: Wasn’t Curiosity That Killed The Baboon… – Ancient Egyptian Pet Cemetery Found.

A team of archaeologists in Hierakonpolis have unearthed an ancient Egyptian animal cemetery, which has uncovered the remains of numerous exotic animals. The skeletal remains of numerous baboons, hippos, and other animals, have depicted a dark past for these companions of the ancient Egyptian elite.

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings. At least two of the baboon skeletons that were discovered had parry fractures, a common fracture of the ulna, caused when a victim is trying to shield their heads from damaging bones.

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings.  ©Renee Friedman

The skeletal remains of the pets, thought to have been buried more than five thousand years ago, revealed numerous broken bones and fractures, which points to them having received harsh beatings. ©Renee Friedman

The skeletal remains of a hippo calf showed evidence of a broken leg, which is thought to have been caused from the animal trying to free itself from a tether. This isn’t the only tether related injury that was discovered at the site; an antelope and a cow also showed similar injuries. The excavations at the Hierakonpolis site also revealed the remains of two elephants, two crocodiles, a leopard, and nine other exotic species. It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt.

Wim Van Neer, a zooarchaeologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, noted that the ancient zookeepers “clearly had difficulty maintaining these animals”. The analysis of the skeletal remains showed that “the practical means of keeping animals in captivity were not so sophisticated as nowadays,” which would account for the numerous injuries sustained by the animals. The animals’ injuries showed signs of healing, which suggests that they were kept in captivity for a further several weeks or longer, rather than being killed immediately after obtaining them.

It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt. ©Renee Friedman

It is thought that the burial ground near to the Nile is the only archaeological evidence of such a wide assortment of zoo animals within ancient Egypt. ©Renee Friedman

It is argued by Richard Redding, an archaeologist of the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum, that the animals’ struggle whilst being captured could have led to the injuries. Van Neer agrees that some of the injuries could have been caused by the struggle, but the forty-plus broken hand and feet bones observed on the baboon remains are just “too numerous to be due to capture”. Van Neer also pointed out that an escaping baboon would have been more likely to break the long bones rather than the metatarsals and metacarpals, whilst escaping the capturers. It is also stated that the baboon remains from more recent tombs display fewer signs of harsh treatment, which may be due to the ancient zookeepers developing better animal keeping techniques.

References:

Van Neer, W. 2015. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 25:3. Pg 253-374.

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: 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!