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Osteological analysis: pathology

Osteological analysis: pathology
So Emily, what is pathology? So in this context, pathology is the study of ancient diseases and how they manifest in the skeleton. So what kinds of diseases would we expect to find on the bones? So really, when you’re analysing a cremation, you’re looking through each and every individual fragment, and you’re trying to identify anything that’s abnormal, or you spot something that you don’t think really should be there. So it’s not as easy to do in cremations as inhumations because, of course, of the rate of preservation– things have broken, been lost, fragmented, so it’s not as clear. But essentially, there’s all kinds of things that we can identify.
Things that are most common, usually, or certainly what I’ve come across, is osteophytes– so extra bone growth. This can happen throughout the skeleton, but quite often, we see it in the vertebrae. Potential healed fractures as well, where someone has broken the bone, and then it has healed and re-fused over time. Antemortem tooth loss is another one that’s quite common in cremations, where an individual at some point in their life has lost a tooth, and then the mandible itself has started to reform and remould, and actually, the hole where the tooth was sitting has started to close up. And other conditions as well, whether they could be congenital or as a result of environmental factors.
So for, say, the osteophytes that you say that you can find in these vertebra, can we see the difference between the ones that are afflicted with this and, say, normal vertebra from a different cremation? Absolutely. So as I said, when you’re looking through the fragments, you’re trying to identify things that don’t look right or feel like they shouldn’t be there. So here we have a vertebral body of quite a young individual. And if we compare that with this one here, as you can see, we do have this extra flaring of bone growth. It kind of looks like chewing gum, this extra osteophyte activity that’s happening. And this is associated with osteoarthritis.
So as you can see, when you compare these two vertebrae next to each other, they do look very different. So it’s little things like that you’re trying to identify– this abnormality– in order to identify the lesion or the pathology. Do you find evidence of that in most cremations? It really can vary and depend very much on the state of preservation of the cremation deposit– if they’ve got a decent amount of material left over, if those particular pathologies are visible within what is remaining.
And I think it’s really important to understand that, with pathologies, the individual in question would have had to have this particular ailment for quite a substantial amount of time in order for it to manifest in the skeleton. So that could suggest that that particular individual was receiving treatment and care– maybe indicative of high status. And that’s why it’s manifesting in the cremation deposit, or that’s why it survived. Is there any pathology in our individual? Yeah, absolutely. So this individual is quite unique. If we look at these fragments here, what you can see is these three separate vertebral bodies.
But if you flip it over on the other side, we have all this excessive bone growth, and actually, lots of erosion and loss of joint space. And what this is is ankylosing spondylitis. Now, this is a joint disease, the aetiology of which is kind of unknown, we don’t really know what causes it, but it is believed that it has a genetic component. So how would it have affected how this person lived? So it would have massively impacted their mobility, their flexibility, their ability to pick things up and move around. In terms of day-to-day activities, they would have been really quite substantially reduced. And even, I think, within their occupation, as well, it would have been quite a struggle for them.
Well, Emily, thanks for being with us, and for talking us through all these processes, and for helping us identify our individual. My pleasure.

Watch Carolina and Emily discuss how an osteologist uses their knowledge of human remains to identify the diseases someone lived with; often this is easier for unburnt than cremated remains, but some conditions are visible even on cremated bone. Carolina asks Emily what we can tell about the pathology of the COL_20 individual.

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