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Chewing on the bones of history
History is not short of details on kings, queens and national figureheads.
But, in days gone by, details of ordinary lives quickly faded following death.
However, leading academics at the University of Bradford are now helping scientists from around the world to bring the past to life.
Around 40 archaeology experts, from as far afield as Argentina, Egypt and Australia, are attending a two-week course which allies Bradford’s impressive resources to cutting-edge techniques to introduce the basics of palaeopathology – the study of ancient diseases through human bones.
Dr Jo Buckberry, experimental officer in biological anthropology at Bradford University, said: “What we are looking at is deficiency disorders such as scurvy, rickets, anaemia, tubercolosis and leprosy – all of which can leave a mark on the skeleton. We can also identify non-specific conditions.
“From the impact they make on skeletal remains we can look at a range of topics including social aspects – such as how people with disease were treated in the past – and their diets. And evidence can also tell us more about how communities survived in different periods, for instance what happened during the Black Death in the Medieval period. We can also look at how diseases have changed.
“For archaeologists, palaeopathology is particularly important because it is our most direct link to the past.”
Participants, including representatives from some of the best academic archaeology departments in the world as well as heritage industry professionals, will be given a rare opportunity to make use of the university’s substantial collection of 3,500 individual human skeletal remains.
The largest collection at any university archaeology department in the country, it includes material dating from the Neolithic period to the 19th century. Although most derives from cemeteries excavated in the UK, a small amount hails from overseas excavations. All of it is stored to the highest ethical standards in temperature-controlled units by the university’s Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC).
“Participants will learn how to describe and identify different diseases from the lesions they leave on the skeleton,” said Dr Buckberry. “It’s a fantastic course – we get the leading experts in the field to come here.”
Among the remains available for study are bodies recovered from the infamous battlefield of what is commonly regarded as the largest and bloodiest battle ever staged on British soil.
On Palm Sunday 1461, the Battle of Towton took place close to Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Part of the Wars of the Roses, it produced casualties believed to be in excess of 50,000 men. Historians believe roughly one per cent of the English population at the time perished during horrific violence waged between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
In 1996, a mass grave located approximately one mile from the battle site was excavated by Bradford academics. Twelve years on, the university’s Towton population represents the nearly complete remains of 37 individuals who received a variety of peri-mortem injuries – wounds inflicted at the time of death.
Their recovery as individuals, rather than as disarticulated bones, makes them a unique resource for the study of weapon injuries and the physical effects of participation in medieval battle.
Other remains available for course participants to examine include individuals recovered from a leprosarium, or leper colony, founded in Chichester, west Sussex, in 1118AD.
Bradford holds some 360 complete human skeletons from the Chichester site which sources show was still in operation during the 15th century, the vast majority of which clearly reveal the debilitating effects leprosy can have on the human frame.
Despite the remains’ antiquity, all are treated with the respect they deserve. Dr Buckberry said: “They never stop being individuals and we have to respect that at all times. That is something we really instil in the pupils.
“You also have to try to remain detached because some of the cases we have here are very, very sad.”
Palaeopathology course leader, Dr Christopher Knüsel, a senior lecturer in biological anthropology at Bradford, said BARC’s standing had played a key role in making the bi-annual course so popular.
Dr Knüsel, who came to Bradford from the USA, said: “Bradford has an outstanding international reputation for this kind of work, which is what brought me here from North America in the first place and why experts from around the world flock here for this course.
“We are examining human bones to get a better understanding of what diseases people may have suffered from, how they might have contracted them and how diseases migrated across continents.
Modern techniques which will feature during the course include the use of isotopes – different strands of chemical elements – to examine diet and the extraction of DNA from hair and nails to identify migration patterns.
Dr Knüsel said: “Many of the course participants are actively involved in research – the expectation is that they will refine their understanding and they will also meet people. It’s a really good place for the exchange of information.”
Solana Garcia, 30, travelled to Bradford from Argentina where she is studying for a PhD in palaeopathology at the University of Buenos Aires. She said: “They have a wonderful collection here at Bradford, and the course is famous throughout the world. I have studied for years to get this kind of information on my own!”
Ian Scott, who works for archaeological heritage company Australian Heritage Consultants, travelled from Perth, Down Under, to take part. He said the course would help him better understand the “diseases and manifestations of diseases which can be found on the skeleton”.
Mr Scott said Bradford’s excellence and professionalism was vital as forensic research on human remains remained a controversial topic in Australia.
And Professor Amira Shahin, from the University of Cairo in Egypt, said: “We don’t have a course like this in Egypt. I really want to learn about palaeopathology and it is really difficult to find a short course like this that gives you all the information you need.”
BARC archaeologists are adding to the department’s international reputation by leading a dig currently taking place in Sidon in the Lebanon. Academics are excavating human remains from a Bronze Age cemetery which dates from between 2,000 and 1,500BC.