2.2 Human Remains

Previous studies of human remains in Scotland|Standardised Traditional Methodology|Sexing and Age at Death|Taphonomy|Biocultural approach|Palaeopathology|New imaging techniques|Research Capacity|Opportunites for further research|Ethics|

The scientific analysis of human skeletal remains from the archaeological contexts in which they were found is termed human osteoarchaeology, or ‘bioarchaeology’. Note that the term ‘bioarchaeology’, while considered among the archaeological community in the UK to refer to both animal and human remains, is used by human osteologists within and outside the UK (primarily the US) to refer exclusively to human remains (see for example, Buikstra and Beck 2006; Larsen 1997; Roberts and Cox 2003).

Skeletal remains constitute the most direct evidence to enable the reconstruction of biology, health, diet, social structure and violence and trauma within past populations. Integrated with historical and archaeological information, osteological analysis can provide a more thorough understanding of ancient populations. Traditional methods of studying human remains include visual inspection and metrical analysis, although more modern applications, such as medical imaging techniques are gradually supplementing these traditional methods, giving additional tools for the study of archaeological and fossil specimens.

Basic analyses, including assessments of age at death, sex in adults, stature (Bass 2005; Schaefer et al.. 2009; White and Folkens 2005) and palaeopathology (Ortner 2003; Roberts and Manchester 2005; Waldron 2009), can be used to reconstruct the lifestyle of the individual. Collated information can provide evidence of population biodistance (Larsen 1997), palaeodemography (Chamberlain 2006) and palaeoepidemiology (Waldron 2007) in ancient communities. Human bone analysis can also provide additional information to the archaeologist on burial practices, cremation technology and taphonomic processes. For example, missing skeletal elements may indicate secondary burial (Mays 2010), the colour of cremated bone can indicate the temperature and efficiency of burning (Walker et al.. 2008) and the condition of the remains can indicate the taphonomic history of a skeletal assemblage (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994).

Previous studies of human remains in Scotland

Table 2: Previous studies of human remains in Scotland

Neolithic Quanterness, Orkney 157 Chesterman 1979
Neolithic Isbister, Orkney 341 Chesterman 1983
Neolithic Quoyness, Sanday, Orkney 14 Wells 1951-2
Bronze Age Barns Farm, Dalgety Bay, Fife 24 Lunt and Barnetson 1982
Bronze Age Various, N.E. Scotland 60 Shepherd and Bruce 1982
Bronze Age Sketewan, Balnaguard, Perth and Kinross 21 McSweeney 1997
Iron Age Dunbar, East Lothian 21 Brothwell and Powers 1964-6
Early Medieval Kneep, Uig, Isle of Lewis 7 Harman 1967
Early Medieval Four Winds, Longniddry, East Lothian 8 Lorimer 1992
Early Medieval Hallow Hill, St Andrews, Fife 93 Lunt 1996; Young 1996
Late Medieval Isle of Ensay, Outer Hebrides 316 Miles, 1989
Late Medieval Whithorn, Wigtownshire 1092 Cardy, 1997
Late Medieval St Marys Kirk Hill, St Andrews 330 Bruce et al. 1997
Late Medieval Holy Trinity, St Andrews, Fife 27 McSweeney 2008
Late Medieval Linlithgow, Perth, Aberdeen c. 343 Cross and Bruce 1989
Neolithic to Medieval Scotland 322 Lunt 1974

In the past, with some few exceptions, studies in archaeological human remains in Scotland have largely been carried out on a case by case basis, driven mainly, as with archaeology in general, by developer-funded excavation (for example O’Sullivan 1994; Rees 2004). Many of these were cremation burials (e.g. Mercer et al.. 1997; Neighbour et al.. 2005). Some larger studies have also been carried out. Table 2 gives examples of published previous research (only sites with several individuals are mentioned).

Standardised traditional methodology

The traditional methods for examining human skeletal remains have been largely based on macroscopic, i.e., visual, and metrical analyses. Methodologies have developed rather idiosyncratically and piecemeal, and some recent publications have sought to address the previous lack of standardised methodology (e.g., Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994, Brickley and McKinley 2004) and professional organisations now strive to promote professional and ethical standards (e.g., British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology [BABAO] http://www.babao.org.uk ; Paleopathology Association http://www.paleopathology.org/).

Sexing and Age at Death

Accurate assessments of sex and estimations of age at death are crucial for an understanding of both past societies and for identification in forensic cases. However, it is not always possible to accurately assess sex in some individuals, or to assign a true age to skeletal remains. In the absence of aDNA, or histological analyses, the best that can be done is to try to link biological age (based on skeletal development and degeneration) with chronological age (Cox 2000; Schaefer et al. 2009). This is done largely by comparing standards generated from modern materials of known sex and age. Both skeletal development and degeneration varies between populations and individuals; the degree of accuracy can therefore vary and standards used may not be relevant to the individual or population being examined. Multivariate systems are recommended for the greatest accuracy (Brickley and McKinley 2004). However, research into new methods of population specific sexing and ageing techniques continue to be developed, especially in the field of forensic anthropology (Charisi et al. 2011; Matt et al. 2006).

The importance of understanding taphonomic processes and burial practices in the interpretation of human osteological analysis

For the proper interpretation of human skeletal remains, it is of primary importance to understand the taphonomic processes and burial practices that can occur both before and after burial. For example, a current research project on infant jar burials is providing new information on burial practices in Early Bronze Age Bulgaria (Bacarov et al. 2011; Bacarov and McSweeney 2011). Previous osteological analyses of some of the infant remains provided only demographic data. A recent opportunity to micro-excavate an intact jar burial has revealed evidence of excarnation, partial decomposition at the time of deposition in the jar, and dismemberment (McSweeney, forthcoming). This demonstrates the importance of taking into account the archaeological context in which human remains are found.

(left) Body of thoracic vertebra with depression in the bone surface, indicating that a bone projectile had penetrated the intervertebral disc space. (Late Mesolithic, Schela Cladovei, Romania), © K McSweeney (right) Evidence of a projectile injury in the upper thoracic vertebra with a tiny fragment of flint embedded in the bone(Late Mesolithic, Schela Cladovei, Romania). Experiments with fresh animal bone have shown that flint projectiles often do not fully embed in bone, but leave only minute traces that are often only visible microscopically (Smith et al. 2007), © K McSweeney

Biocultural approach

In the past skeletal analysis tended to concentrate on the individual; today the thrust of osteological analysis is largely on populations as seen within their cultural environment. While there may be variations in approach according to geographical location, the general emphasis today in osteology is to consider the ‘biocultural approach’. This term was first used in 1977 by Blakely:

“Humans survive not through cultural adaptation nor through biological adaptation but through biocultural adaptation”.

Because culture is such an important component of human society, population groups must be understood within the context of their associated culture, which brings a far richer understanding of biological data.

The holistic biocultural approach has specific goals:

  1. To document specific ways in which biological anthropologists can contribute to studies of cultural processes.
  2. To illustrate the interrelationship between the biological, cultural and environmental variables that affect the adaptedness, or maladaptedness of prehistoric populations.
  3. To demonstrate the need for co-operation among biological anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnologists and other expert investigators toward problem-solving in behavioural anthropology (Blakely, 1977). The biocultural approach has led to a number of interdisciplinary studies, including:
    • Bone chemistry for dietary reconstruction
    • Palaeodemographic studies
    • Palaeoepidemiology
    • Field anthropology
    • Biological distance studies
    • Biomechanical approaches for understanding patterns of activity
    • Stable isotope ratios (strontium) for establishing mobility.


The identification and recording of pathological lesions are an important part of human bone analysis and can provide much information of the lifestyle of an individual, or the health of a population group. It should be appreciated, however, that there are numerous limitations to assessments of health and disease and the analysis of pathological lesions will only provide a partial representation. Firstly, not all diseases will affect the skeleton. Only those diseases and conditions that are chronic tend to affect the skeleton; acute infectious diseases, or those confined to soft tissue, will leave no trace. Thus, in the majority of cases, the cause of death cannot be established.

Even when pathological lesions are present on the bone, it may not be possible to diagnose the disease process that caused the lesions. Bone responds to disease processes in a limited number of ways and many diseases will have similar effects on the skeleton. Thus, it is more important to describe the nature, location and distribution of bony change, rather than to feel obliged to attempt a diagnosis (Ortner 2003). One can suggest differential diagnoses, however. The difficulties in diagnosing diseases from human skeletal remains have been recognised. Waldron (2009) has suggested ‘Operational Definitions’ for some of the most common diseases affecting bone, for example osteoarthritis and tuberculosis. As the distribution of lesions throughout the skeleton is important to the accuracy of diagnosis, good preservation and completeness of skeletal remains can be crucial. For example, the numerous types of joint disease can have different distributions of joints affected (Rogers and Waldron 1995). In the case of incomplete remains the diagnosis of a specific joint disease may not be possible.

The future of the accurate diagnosis and the history of disease may lie in biomolecular analyses, such as aDNA. For example a current project, headed by Prof. Charlotte Roberts of the University of Durham, is researching the aetiology and development of tuberculosis in Britain and Europe (see http://www.dur.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/?mode=project&id=353).

New imaging techniques

Traditional metrical analysis is being replaced by new imaging techniques. Geometric morphometrics uses anatomical landmarks and imaging software to explore size and shape variation in individuals (see, for example, Wilson et al.. 2008, 2011; Franklin et al.. 2008). Much of the work on this new tool is being progressed by the European Virtual Anthropology Network (EVAN), a multidisciplinary project, which combines ‘anatomical imaging, 3D digitisation, display, modelling, programming, and leading edge expertise in the quantitative analysis of anatomical variability’ to study ‘anatomical variability in humans, their ancestors, and their close relatives’. (See: http://www.evan.at/).

Geomorphic morphometrics has a number of applications that can be utilised in the study of archaeological skeletal populations, from comparing variability within and between groups, assessing sex in sub-adults (previously problematic) and for assessing sex in sexually indeterminate or incomplete skeletal remains. Such computer-generated analyses eliminate the user error that can occur in normal metrical analysis. It can also be used to create a digital archive of skeletal populations, trauma or disease. The University of Edinburgh Archaeology department has purchased the necessary software and hardware to conduct such analyses and is creating a digital library that contains several digital archives of trauma and morphological variation, which is being extensively used for teaching purposes.

Virtual Anthropology allows the study of specimens in three dimensions through the use of medical imaging techniques, such as CT (Computed Tomography) scans. This approach is ideal for application to the study of fragile and precious archaeological skeletal material, and enables the study of internal features without damaging the specimens. Because of these properties, virtual anthropology methods have become the standard in the reconstruction and study of highly valuable and fragile fossil skeletal material, and, increasingly, also in more recent skeletal remains. Both coordinate 3-D data, such as those used in geometric morphometric analyses, and standard linear measurements, such as those used in more traditional craniometric analyses, as well as additional useful measurements such as volumes and surfaces, can be obtained non-invasively from CT scan data. Moreover, special characteristics of the skeleton such as hard tissue thicknesses, trabecular patterns, or particular traumatic patterns, only visible in the endocranial surface are now available for observation via a 3D virtual reconstruction from the CT scan data.

Research capacity

Until fairly recently the analysis of human skeletal remains was conducted rather piecemeal in the UK by amateur osteologists, many of whom had medical and not archaeological backgrounds (for example, Chesterman 1979, 1983; Young 1996). The last few decades has seen a mushrooming of the field of osteoarchaeology; the important difference being that osteological remains are viewed within their archaeological context. Seven universities in the UK now offer taught postgraduate degrees in this discipline and the number of universities with staff and students conducting relevant research is in double figures. The University of Edinburgh has been offering taught postgraduate programmes in osteoarchaeology since 2005 and each year since their inception has seen an increase in student intake, both at taught MSc and PhD levels. In 2010/11, this total had reached 45. The level of research currently conducted in the UK has therefore proliferated and the resulting research potential is massive.

Several research students are currently undertaking research in Scotland, including the treatment and use of human remains in the Atlantic Scottish Iron Age (University of Bradford), and at the University of Edinburgh, cremation technology and ritual in Bronze Age Scotland, the osteological examination of the human skeletal remains from Berst Ness, Westray, and health status in Medieval Scotland.

There are numerous collections of archaeological skeletal assemblages within Scotland that could potentially be utilised for research. The University of Edinburgh holds three Scottish skeletal populations, all of medieval or post-medieval date. Other large collections are held at the University of Aberdeen, Marischal Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and at various other museums in Scotland. There is no existing record of exactly what is held and a clear need for a national skeletal database to establish exactly what is available for study.

The Department of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh has established collaborations with medical centres such as the Medical Imaging Centre at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the Heraklion Medical Centre, Greece, in order to acquire CT-scan data for several different studies. One of the studies involves the creation of an examination protocol for evaluating trauma through 3-D reconstructions from CT scans in archaeological and modern skeletal remains. The goal of this project is to establish objective criteria for the assessment of perimortem and postmortem trauma, including extent and severity. This project seeks to build on the success of recent studies using 3-D CT imaging in the evaluation of trauma patterning and the development of a qualitative method of assigning trauma. The protocol could be extended and could have applications in forensic cases, as well as fragile archaeological specimens and to the valuable fossil record.

Collaboration on trauma simulation is also currently being progressed between the Archaeology department at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Veterinary College of London.

Opportunities for Further Research

Notwithstanding the above examples, there have been few thematic, temporal or geographic studies carried out and there are huge opportunities for research frameworks with such foci.

Modern medical image technology and the use of CT scans offers the possibility of creating virtual models (e.g. Finite Element Analysis models) in order to simulate impacts that created a fracture or activities such as mastication or locomotion that would add essential information on the habits and welfare of past populations.

Current research collaborations with the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the Royal Veterinary College of London indicate the potential for joint research projects with medical researchers. A recent study by a University of Edinburgh PhD student has revealed a very early case of prostate cancer, a child with advanced tuberculosis and a potential case of pre-Columbian syphilis. These examples have sparked the interest of epidemiologists, historians and medical specialists and indicate the possibility on future collaboration with such professionals.

Forensic Anthropology

Together with osteoarchaeology, the field of forensic anthropology has also developed considerably in the last two decades. This discipline, which focuses on human skeletal remains recovered from crime scenes, war graves and humanitarian crises, has a great overlap with osteoarchaeology. Similar methodological techniques are applied to osteological analysis and archaeological excavation methods are often applied to the recovery of forensic human remains (see, for example, Hunter 1996).

Much recent osteological research has been conducted by forensic specialists working on archaeological skeletal populations. The two disciplines therefore have much to learn from each other.


By virtue of their status as the remains of once living people, the analysis and treatment of human remains requires ethical considerations over and above those that pertain to other classes of archaeological materials. Human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect regardless of age or provenance.

The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains in 1989 at World Archaeological Congress Inter-Congress, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA adopted the following principles:

  1. Respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all, irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition. Respect for the wishes of the dead concerning disposition shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful, when they are known or can be reasonably inferred.
  2. Respect for the wishes of the local community and of relatives or guardians of the dead shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful. Respect for the scientific research value of skeletal, mummified and other human remains (including fossil hominids) shall be accorded when such value is demonstrated to exist.
  3. Agreement on the disposition of fossil, skeletal, mummified and other remains shall be reached by negotiation on the basis of mutual respect for the legitimate concerns of communities for the proper disposition of their ancestors, as well as the legitimate concerns of science and education. The express recognition that the concerns of various ethnic groups, as well as those of science are legitimate and to be respected, will permit acceptable agreements to be reached and honoured.
  4. Under Scots law all human remains have ‘the right of sepulchre’ and to violate a burial deliberately is a criminal act. While it is not an offence in every case to disturb or disinter human remains, the right of sepulchre is strongly defended under the law and an offence is considered to have been committed if the treatment of human remains is deemed to have offended public decency. See also http://www.babao.org.uk/index/ethics-and-standards

Further information on the treatment of human remains can be found in Marquez-Grant & Fibiger (2011) and Brickley & McKinley (2004).

The chapel at Ensay

Figure 5: The chapel in Ensay associated with the excavated human remains that was the subject of osteological analysis by Miles (1989, 1994, 1995). The remains have now been reburied. While Miles report was extremely comprehensive and provides an important published resource, had the remains been retained for future research, more modern osteological techniques, such as imaging, bone chemistry and histological analysis, could have been applied, making the resource even more valuable © Wikimedia commons.

Comments 2

  1. Ageing and sexing human remains

    What are the issues aroun ageing and sexing human remains? Doesn’t seem to be mentioned here so maybe good to outline?

  2. Guidance on ethics

    Could the ethics section be expanded to include recent legislation, and perhaps guidance on dealing with remains?

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