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What can bones tell us about an individual?

Watch Dr Mary Lewis analyse the bones and teeth of a skeleton in order to identify the age of the individual.
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of teenagers for medieval England, using analysis of their skeletons as well as looking at other collections that people have already recorded. As part of the study we analysed hundreds of skeletons of teenagers from archaeological collections. And one of the things we need to do initially was to identify the skeletons as being immature or juvenile. So what I’m going to do today is talk to you about how we go through analysing a juvenile skeleton. So one of the first things we’d want to do is estimate the skeleton is a child or still a juvenile individual. We do this by looking at various aspects of the skeleton.
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One of the first things is to look at the teeth, and you can see from this skeleton that some of the teeth have yet to erupt. And this suggests that they are still growing, they’re still immature. Also, you might notice on the skeleton there are various bits of bone. These are the growing ends of the bones at the joints that fuse when an individual finishes growing. And in this individual, these ends, or these epiphases, have yet to fuse. So this individual is a juvenile. One of the first estimations we would make for the skeleton is the age of the individual.
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And the most accurate way for us to do that is to look, again, at the teeth and look at the development of the teeth. And the best way to do this is to take an x-ray, and this one’s an x-ray of the lower jaw of this individual. And we can look at each individual tooth and the development of the crown and the development of the root of the tooth, and this will give us a sequence of ageing. So from the dental x-ray we can tell that this individual was between 12 to 14 years of age when they died.
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So once we’ve established the age of the individual, we might also want to decide whether this individual was a boy or girl. Now in adults this would be done by looking at the shape of the skull and the shape of the pelvis. But in children this is less easy because before puberty, the skull doesn’t take on any of the masculine shapes that you might expect for a male, and they all of the skulls would look pretty feminine. One of the other problems is that the pelvis is not fused yet. And therefore, the shapes that we would expect to see in an adult to enable us to sex the individual don’t exist in this individual.
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Part of what we were doing with our medieval teenage project was to look to see if we could identify, whether the children had started their adolescent growth spurt and whether they were entering puberty. From the estimate of this skeleton, we said the individual was 12 to 14 years of age. We can look at various aspects, and in particular, this little bone on the wrist, from the wrist bone. This is a hamate. And there’s a hook that forms on this bone when an individual has started puberty that develops fully as they finish puberty. And in this case, the hook hasn’t yet formed, which suggests the child hasn’t started puberty yet. This is fairly late in comparison to modern children.
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So we carried out this sort of estimate of the adolescent growth spurt and puberty on 900 individuals within medieval teenage study. And we noted that although a lot of the children were entering the growth spurt at the same time as they do today, around 10 to 13 years of age, many of the children were taking much longer to finish maturity, with some dying at 25 years of age before they were fully mature. Also in London, we noted that the females from London, they weren’t having their first period until at least 17 years of age.
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And all of these factors seem to suggest that the medieval environment, particularly the London medieval environment, was having a detrimental effect on the growth and development of the medieval teenager.
In this video, Mary Lewis analyses the teeth and bones of a skeleton in order to identify the age and biological sex of the individual.
You may also find this list of terms related to osteology of interest.
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Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond

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