Bones of contention

Skeletal remains (both animal and human) are amongst the most common finds in archaeological excavations. These artefacts are useful in identifying economic and social aspects of the community associated with them, as well as assisting archaeologists in dating the site.

Animal bones can be used to identify the diet of the area; the presence of butchery marks and burnt bones can be interpreted as the preparation and consumption of animals which can give archaeologists an insight into how a community in a certain period ate and survived. Large amounts of animal bone also gives archaeologists the chance to use the oh so popular interpretation of ritual. Seriously, we love that.

The University of Bristol’s excavations at Berkeley have uncovered a large assemblage of red deer bones. Berkeley is home to a large red deer park where deer have been raised and hunted for hundreds of years. The deer at Berkeley have been so important that sources talk about Queen Elizabeth I staying at Berkeley castle and killing all of the Berkeley deer in a matter of hours!

Deer bones excavated by students at Berkeley Castle
The excavation of human remains in archaeological sites is also helpful in identifying the social and economic environment of the contemporary community. The age and gender of the individual can be identified from analysing bones. Specific questions can be answered, for instance, in women, analysis of the pelvic bone can determine they delivered any children. Illnesses such as arthritis and some cancers leave evidence on the bones of those it affected. Archaeologists can identify ailments that occurred during different time periods, and detect epidemics in communities such as the widespread contraction of tuberculosis.

By analysing certain elements of skeletal remains, such as the prominence of muscle markers on bones, the socioeconomic position of the individual can be determined; the remains of a manual labourer is more inclined to bear more prominent muscle markers due to higher level of activity compared to someone of a higher social status with a more relaxed lifestyle.

Archaeologists can also examine teeth to determine several factors about the individual. For example, by analysing the level of carbon in the teeth the mobility of an individual can be revealed. In turn this can be used to identify any social links between communities. Malnourishment can also be detected through the analysis of teeth, particularly that which occurred during childhood. This presents itself as a form of ribbing on the external section of the tooth, highlighting possible socioeconomic issues of the period, particularly when compared to examples of higher status individuals. Even if no teeth are recovered from the excavation jawbones can also be used as identifying dental health and the deterioration of teeth.


However, there are many ethical issues surrounding the excavation of human bones such as the existence of relatives, religious issues associated with exhumation and the circumstances in which the individual died, such as in a war. How the remains are handled after excavation can also cause dispute. It can be argued that if human remains are from the last few hundred years, recent relatives may still exist and not appreciate their ancestors being excavated and stored. 
  • Should archaeologists attempt to find relatives of the deceased? 
  • Is there a time period after which human remains should not be excavated?
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Our community engagement and ethics project is supported by the University of Bristol's Green Apple Scheme.