Archaeology Exposed: The Story of Skeletons

By adam corsini on 6 Feb 2012

Skull with Sword Wound

Let me start by saying I find skeletons fascinating. When I was putting together the series of events that celebrate our archaeological archive’s 10th anniversary, without a doubt I wanted to make sure human remains featured. When we ran our last Visitor Inclusion Project (LAARC VIP7 – Nov-Dec 2010) we had a table with skeletal remains from the amazing excavation at Newgate Street of St Nicholas Shambles (see here for more information about the skeletons from this site). This proved so popular, attracting almost 2000 visitors over 10 days, that it was the first of our “Archaeology Exposed” events to be confirmed this time around. 

Discovering the bones in the human skeleton

Over the last 3 Tuesdays, our table has already attracted over 500 visitors, all of whom have been fascinated by what skeletal remains can tell you. Again I recommend you take a look at this previous blog to find out how much was discovered from the skeletons at Newgate Street (Previous Skeleton Blog)


However, what I didn’t realise until fairly recently is that we were very close to not having any of this information at all. The site at Newgate Street was amongst the first to uncover skeletons using standard archaeological recording techniques, only, before this dig, they hadn’t really ever excavated skeletons on the scale of which they had on this site. This excavation with 234 articulated bodies demanded a new technique for recording beyond the standard context sheet.

And so a simple but effective addition to the sheet was created. A splayed out image of a skeleton of which any remaining bones could be shaded in. Beneath a series of simple descriptive pointers which would provide more information about the skeleton such as the conditions of the limbs and the state of the bones themselves. Finally the relationship of the skeleton to its surrounding contexts and any plan, photo and extra associated numbers and finds were to be recorded too.

Using this type of recording, our late Senior curator of Osteology, Bill White, was able to right his report and consequently anyone who so wished was able to discover a bit more about these particular Londoners. The skeleton records sheet became a standard method of recording which is still in use today.

So to finish, if you want to see some of these incredible remains yourself, they’ll be on display in Archaeology in Action every Tuesday for the next 6 weeks. And if you want to find out about who created this concept of skeletal recording, you can meet him every Friday for the next 6 weeks as it’s the former site director Alan Thompson, who has returned to the museum to volunteer for our anniversary celebrations. But more about him tomorrow…

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