Memento mori

Archaeologists dig up plenty of interesting stuff, but arguably none of it is more interesting - or meaningful - than excavating the remains of the people who put the archaeology there for us to dig up in the first place.


It was the ancient cemetery that gave Boneyard its name, and formed the core of the first decade of SHARP's activities. But even though we haven't been excavating burials on a regular basis for a long time, the human remains are still an intrinsic part of our work.


Dr Sophie Beckett of Cranfield University has been part of the human remains research program at SHARP on and off since 2002, and, along with the other human remains team members, helps to organise the research and teach the courses each year.


Delicately excavating a burial in Reeddam, 1999

"Excavating human remains is not everyone's cup of tea," says Sophie. "Not everyone likes skeletons. But to me there is no feeling like the personal connection with the past I get when uncovering the face of a fellow human that has not been seen since being laid to rest in this place by loved ones centuries ago."


The excavation of human remains also allows the reconstruction of a village long gone, and by doing so helps us understand more about the lives and their culture of those who lived there. Sophie notes that "excavating and studying the skeletons as individuals and as a group teaches us an enormous amount about them and their community."


Partially excavated burials awaiting photography, 2004

For those who are interested in human remains research - or, to give it its technical name, osteoarchaeology - getting access to an archive and to high-quality training can be a challenge outside museums and universities. SHARP, however, has held an introductory course in human remains almost every year since 1998, and more recently has developed an advanced course to extend the knowledge of those keen to know more.


Mary-Jane learns about metacarpals, 2017

It doesn't matter if you don't know your teeth from your tarsal bones. "On the introductory course we assume no prior knowledge," says Sophie. "There is a pretty steep learning curve, but few people have problems - and we provide heaps of training material and support."


Sorting and recording, 2017

The six-day Introduction to Human Remains course includes lessons on skeletal anatomy, human dentition, identifying age and sex, paleo-pathology (injuries and diseases in bone), and how to interpret and document findings into a comprehensive record. "It's a busy week, but everyone always has a great time," Sophie says. The week ends with a spirited discussion on the ethics - or otherwise - of excavating human remains. "The ethics scenario is always one of the most highly rated parts of the course, and aims to show that just because we can excavate ancient burials, we should always stop and think about whether or not we should do so."


The ethics discussion in full flight, 2017

Building on this, the five-day advanced course - known as Further Studies in Human Remains - extends into the developmental anatomy and dentition of juvenile skeletons, expands our understanding of paleo-pathology, and introduces new areas like biomechanics (the science of human movement and how it marks the skeleton) and archaeothanatology, or the study of burial rites and rituals, and what they tell us about the beliefs of the culture practicing them.


The delights of human dentition

"The Sedgeford skeletal archive is one of the largest and most complete collections from the Middle Saxon period in Britain," Sophie says, "and what we are learning is giving us a new understanding of how people lived in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. Everything we know so far suggests they were remarkably healthy and well-grown! Certainly not like the popular concept of ancient and medieval people as small and in poor health. If we passed them in the street, besides their clothing, we probably wouldn't even notice them. Even their teeth were great, especially given they didn't have dentists!"


A violent death - skeleton S1016 at Open Day 2017

The research into Sedgeford's Middle Saxon community has been underway for 22 years, and bids fair to continue for just as long - or longer. "We're only starting to put together the data that will help us understand more about the community as a whole, and new technologies like ancient DNA and isotope analysis are giving us even more information," Sophie says. She feels that we're only scratching the surface, and the scientific analysis of human remains has a long way to go. "Who knows - perhaps one day the DNA will tell us what these people looked like, the colour of their eyes and their hair, and who was related to whom."


If you've ever been interested in past peoples, and want to get to know them better, come and meet our Anglo-Saxon friends... More information on the Introduction to Human Remains course can be found here, and the Further Studies course here.


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  © 2017-18 SEDGEFORD HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT

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