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The Skeleton

Find out more about one of the discoveries made at University of Reading's field school.
So this is the mandible of the skeleton that was found at the Pewsey dig in summer 2015. So when it was found, it was found in the terminus of the henge ditch, and then it was excavated. And a delicate part, so the skull and the pelvis, were block-lifted because they had so many pieces to them and had been quite crushed under the amount of earth that was on top of them, and then taken to the lab. And then in the lab, we very carefully, with some very tiny trowels, excavated those bits out. And then once they’d all been taken away from the earth, we then cleaned every single bone.
So you have to be very careful because what you don’t want to do is brush his teeth, as though they were kind of your teeth, because you don’t want to get rid of any of those bits. Like, the calculus is really good. There’s a lot of good recent analysis that can be actually done on the calculus, kinda have a look at the content of diet and things like that. So you want to be really careful to not clean those bits off.
It’s kind of a case of cleaning as much of the mud as you can off without getting rid of anything that’s actually important for analysis So a couple of the boys on the team who excavated it, they sat and drew, actually, a really brilliant drawing, meticulously drawing every tiny, little fragment of bone in position. Like, measuring it all out and drawing it all to scale so that you can go back and see exactly the position it was buried in. The burial is of a teenage boy. He’s probably 14 and 1/2 to 15 years old. And he had no grave goods with him other than a rather wonderful amber necklace around his neck.
A tiny shard of pottery within his grey fill tells us that this is an early Bronze Age burial. Being able and having the chance to process the skeleton at the field school, before I came back to the university to carry out my lab work for my dissertation, was really helpful because it meant that I got a long period of exposure with human remains. And could practise the techniques that I had already learned in the second year of my degree in analysing the remains. But specifically, I also got to look at the dentition, and have my first chance of trying to identify anything that might be of interest, such as the pathology and the wear that were found.
And so that was really helpful in my study throughout my third year after the field school.

The discovery of the remains of a teenage boy from deep within the Wilsford henge ditch was undoubtedly the most celebrated discovery of our work in 2015.

Human remains are both tangible and evocative – they remind us that the past is not an abstract concept concocted by theoreticians, but that people really did live and die in these places. Our understanding of the Wilsford henge, and indeed this period generally, is richer for this discovery.

Careful analysis of the skeleton by osteologist Mary Lewis tells us that the individual was 14 to 15 years old on death, and that he is in all likelihood male. We know from Mary’s work that he suffered a fracture to his right collarbone when he was younger, and has signs of mechanical strain on his skeleton indicating that he did a lot of walking and heavy lifting. He also has chipped and worn front teeth, suggesting that he regularly used his teeth to do something, perhaps to clamp string during a task. Pitted changes to his eye sockets indicates that his diet was low in iron – in all probability a general lack of meat and fresh vegetables in his diet.

There is still much more to learn about this teenage boy. Although we know that he is Bronze Age in date because of his stratigraphic location within the ditch sequence and the fragments of pottery found in his grave, we do not know exactly when he was buried. Radiocarbon dating will provide evidence for this – at least to within 100 years or so of his death. Furthermore, by undertaking both ancient DNA and isotopic studies of the skeleton, we will be able to shed light on his diet, movement and mobility patterns. Both techniques can provide remarkable information on how far individuals moved throughout their life, which is a truly exciting prospect and should provide us with a greater understanding of his life story.

Can you imagine the teenage boy’s life? How he broke his collarbone, what activities he used his teeth for, what caused the mechanical strain on his skeleton, and why his diet was poor? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond

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