Managing Human Skeletal Collections: A Rapid Assessment System

  • Rose Drew

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Research Imperative: This project describes an observation-based protocol to rapidly assess skeletonised human remains. Up to 60% of British museums are unaware of the quality and quantity of their holdings; almost all lack databases. Thousands of remains are disturbed annually during commercial and private development, but funding, time and skills rarely align to provide basic assessments, a true impediment to research. Several well-known collections are examined repeatedly, with others under-studied or inspected randomly; data accumulates haphazardly as scholars research specific questions. A rapid assessment system is needed. Aims: This ‘Rapid Assessment System’ (RAS) aims to capture information using affordable and available resources: curators, students and volunteers. RAS answer sheets offer multiple options using non-specialist language. In this way, basic data about a skeleton can be collected. Methods: Volunteers without osteological training were provided with RAS answer sheets and specimen skeletons to examine. Observations were ‘correct’ when in agreement with the author. The RAS was divided into an Inventory segment, assessing presence, absence and condition of skeletal elements, and assessing traits associated with age and sex; and a Paleopathology segment assessing normal and abnormal appearance of teeth and bones. In Winchester, 37 volunteers (undergraduates, semi-retired amateur archaeologists) trialed the RAS over three weekly two-hour sessions, with 22 volunteers assessing at least three skeletons: 91 RAS answer sheets were analysed. Results: Pooling results for all three weeks, volunteers were correct 70.4% of the time for Inventory, and 75.3% of the time in the third week. Paleopathology results were mixed: some participants attained 85.2% correct, others less than 10%. Overall condition of remains, a primary assessment recommended by English Heritage enjoyed 90% success (score of 81 from 91 forms). Assessing skull condition was correct 96.2% (87.5/91). Differentiating between ‘robust’, ‘gracile’ and ‘moderate’ long bones was 79.7% effective (72.5/91); recognising tooth wear (none, mild, moderate) accomplished 78.6% (71.5/91). Robusticity and dental wear inform on estimations of sex and age at death. Implications: Basic data can be accurately amassed by novices. Two separate forms are proposed: Inventory for general use; complex Paleopathology assessments for workers with some training or considerable patience. The Paleopathology segment can act as an aid for early-stage researchers and students and help them avoid missing out observations when examining large collections. The RAS can be tailored to assess specific diseases such as leprosy or tuberculosis. Future versions should utilise electronic formats to simplify processing. If adopted by commercial firms, universities and museums, data can be captured, permitting information to be shared, and reducing handling of these delicate, poignant and unique ‘artefacts’.
Date of Award15 Oct 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Winchester
SupervisorTony King (Supervisor) & Paul Everill (Supervisor)

Cite this