An image of a typical osteology laboratory consisting of large tables to lay out a skeleton and skeletal reference material, including anatomical models and books
The Fenwick Osteology Laboratory in the Archaeology Department of Durham University

Inventory, Preservation and Completeness

In forensic and archaeological contexts, human bone specialists create an ‘osteological profile’ from skeletal remains and radiographs. This profile consists of a description of the key identifying features of an individual. These typically include:

  • Sex
  • Age-at-death
  • Stature
  • Evidence of pathology or trauma

A woman holds up a radiograph and examines the image. She is standing in a laboratory Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A radiologist studies x-rays of victims of the Comayagua prison fire, looking for injuries, fractures, medical devices and other identifying marks. (Photographer Alejandra Jimenez, Copyright ICRC)

This information is important to gather in conjunction with DNA evidence for establishing individual identity. The accuracy of the osteoprofile is dependent on preservation and completeness of the skeleton, as well as the context of burial. For example, commingled remains, in which two or more individuals are placed within the same grave can complicate analysis, particularly if those individuals are of a similar age and sex (we will discuss this further in Week 6).

To begin an osteoprofile, we need to determine the bones that are present. We also need to determine how many of each bone we have. This helps establish if there is one or more individual(s) in the bone assemblage. To do this accurately, we also need to determine the preservation and completeness of the bones that we have.

There are a variety of different techniques for producing an ‘osteoprofile’ and over the past decade, there has been an increasing emphasis on the standardisation of methods to ensure comparability between studies. An example of these standards from the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology is a recent good example.

It is important that methods are appropriate for the skeletons being analysed and there are some minor differences in the timing of skeletal development and body proportions between groups of people living in different environments. Population-specific methods have also been developed to calculate aspects of the osteoprofile such as stature.

Doing an Inventory

First, the skeletal remains should be laid out in anatomical position in the laboratory. A full inventory of the bones present should be produced. Usually, this consists of a written inventory and a diagrammatic representation.

Assessing Preservation and Completeness

The completeness of the skeleton should be estimated using standardised criteria. Usually, this consists of an estimate of the proportion of the skeleton that is present. A skeleton may be very complete in terms of skeletal element representation, but still poorly preserved, depending on the degree of fragmentation of the bones and the appearance of the cortical (outer) surface. These features are therefore scored separately. If the surface texture of the bones is badly eroded then this can affect the anthropologist’s ability to estimate age-at-death and may also impact the identification of pathological lesions.

To assess preservation and completeness you will want to record:

  1. Completeness of the skeleton (What percentage of the skeleton is present? How complete is each bone?)
  2. Fragmentation of the bones (Are the bone elements in one piece, broken into several pieces, or broken into many small fragments?)
  3. Degree of surface erosion (Is the surface of the bone in good condition or has it been damaged?)

Now that you’ve laid out your skeletal remains and begun your osteoprofile, consider how the lab environment changes what you are able to study and assess. In the next steps, we will be discussing more detailed aspects of constructing an osteoprofile, many of which might be complicated to do directly at a burial site.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University