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Durham University

Durham University News


Meet our Bone Detectives

(14 February 2020)

Person wearing forensic gloves examining a skull

Did you know that our teeth and bones hold many secrets?

Our “bone detectives” (read: bioarchaeologists) can find out from an individual’s teeth how long they were breastfed for as a child, or what diseases they suffered by analysing their bones.

A Channel 4 series, featuring three of our bioarchaeologists, delves into the stories behind some of the human remains found across the UK to shed light on our past.

Digging deep

Throughout our lives our bones and teeth are subtly altered by everything we experience – from our diet to our social interactions to our local environment – and bioarchaeologists see human bones and teeth as an archive of an individual’s life.

Our experts, Dr Andrew Millard, Professor Rebecca Gowland and Dr Anwen Caffell use modern techniques to analyse ancient human remains to understand what led to their deaths and what this tells us about life in the past

Bronze Age burials

In one programme, Andrew uses isotope analysis on the teeth of five people found buried in a deep pit on the Isle of Thanet in Kent in the UK. Their remains date back to the Late Bronze Age and his results showed that they had spent their childhoods in various places across Europe. Three were local to Kent, but one was from Spain or further south and the other from Scandinavia.

Andrew’s analysis revealed that this site may have been a nexus for traders coming from far and wide, which would not have been known from the artefacts found alongside the bodies.

Children of the Revolution

Bones recovered in Leeds and in North Yorkshire in the UK, which were largely made up of children and teenagers who lived through the industrial revolution in the 18th and early 19th century, were analysed by Rebecca and Anwen.

They found that their bones showed signs of long-term malnutrition including rickets and scurvy, growth stunting and a respiratory disease known as Cotton-Workers lung. Poverty, malnutrition, and gruelling working conditions ultimately led to the deaths of these children.

Find out more

  • Professor Rebecca Gowland’s profile is available here, Dr Anwen Cafell’s is available here and Dr Andrew Millard’s profile is available here
  • The Bone Detectives – Digging up Britain’s Past is available to watch on demand via All 4 - see here

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