Forensic bones and osteology

By mike henderson on 25 Sep 2009

Every so often when the office phone rings, there is a police officer on the end of the line and we know that possible human bones have been discovered somewhere in the city.

Living and working in a city of London’s magnitude, with its densely packed population and layer upon layer of history, it is not uncommon for the dead of long ago to resurface. A gardener may accidently have uncovered some remains or construction workers digging new building foundations may have disturbed an old rubbish pit full of animal bone or an unexpected burial ground.

Human or animal?

When the police are contacted, the first vital question they need to answer is whether the bone is human or animal. To an untrained and sometimes trained eye, tiny fragments of bone can often be difficult to distinguish.

Working with archaeological material on a daily basis, osteologists at Museum of London Archaeology often encounter poorly preserved and heavily fragmented bone and disarticulated skeletons (where the bones are no longer in anatomical position). These may have originated from burials that have degraded or been disturbed in the ground over time, or bone that has been deliberately burnt and broken through the act of cremation. Animal bone is also a common finding on archaeological sites and is often mixed with the human skeletons.

Forensic archaeology The experience and familiarity gained by working with such material gives the osteologist an advantage in identifying bone. Many medical doctors for example, may only be used to dealing with recent, well preserved and complete human skeletal material or might not have handled animal bone.

Following a phone call, osteologists will either visit the site where the bone was found or occasionally the police may bring the remains into the office. If the bone is identified as animal, and is of no interest to the police, the English Heritage area Archaeological Advisor will usually be informed and if the find is of archaeological significance, further work may take place.

Modern or old?

If the bone is human, then the next question that the police need to know is whether it is of modern or historical/ archaeological date.

Using GIS, a system which allows us to look at historic maps and the location of previous archaeological finds overlaid onto the modern ordnance survey maps, we can quickly determine if the remains are likely to have originated from a historic burial ground.

Importantly, by visiting the site and seeing the remains in the ground where they were found, we can look at the different layers of soil which have built up through time and together with any artefacts found can use this to determine what period the bone dates from. If the bone is deemed of archaeological date (defned by the Human Tissue Act as 100 years old or more) then the Ministry of Justice, and the local Archaeological Advisor are contacted to discuss the best way to proceed. This may warrant further archaeological investigation.

On rare occasions, where bone is thought to be modern and suspicious then our experienced Forensic Archaeologists assist the police in the recovery of the remains and associated evidence. Archaeological excavation techniques involve the detailed collection and recording of evidence that can be vital in the reconstruction of a possible crime.

Detailed recording of the human remains can provide evidence of age and sex and may help with victim identification. Analysis of the bone may also help establish a date: evidence of modern dental work for example will distinguish the material from archaeological remains. Samples may also be sent for radiocarbon dating to help determine what time period the person lived.

If human bones are encountered (or if you find remains and are unsure if they are human or not) you should always contact the police first, it may also be appropriate to contact the GLAAS Advisor for your area. Human remains whether from a modern or archeological time should always be treated with care and respect. It is vital that the bone is not disturbed further or removed from the ground. This will help to preserve the bone and if left situ (where they were found), this will retain important information about the context and type of burial.

Click here for further information and contact details of the Museum of London Archaeology Forensic Archaeology team.

Unfortunately, at present we do not have any vacancies or opportunities for work experience in this area. If you are interested in finding out more about forensic archaeology you may find the links below of interest. There are also a large number of Universities with undergraduate and post-graduate courses which include aspects of forensic archaeology.

One thought on “Forensic bones and osteology

  1. Dan says:


    I used this blog to answer a question on People are looking for London museums.

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