What do skeletal remains tell us about the life of an Ancient Briton? We take one out of its box and put it together at Brighton Museum to find out
Brighton Museum’s Museum Lab; a former Victorian reference library turned interactive space where the walls are lined with old mahogany cabinets; giant turtle shells, badgers and intriguing old books sit on the shelves and a musty yet mesmerising atmosphere provides the perfect setting for interactions between public, curators and collection.
Today the doors are closed and on one of the tables sits a large but otherwise innocuous brown cardboard box. Inside are the skeletal remains of a 2,000-year-old person from the Iron Age period.
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Dr Paola Ponce, an Art Fund-sponsored expert osteoarchaeologist who is recording the museum’s Saxon human remains collection, is going to lay it out in the anatomical position and explain what an ancient skeleton can tell us about the age, sex and life of an ancient Briton.
The skeleton was discovered during an archaeological dig in the 1970s buried in a prehistoric, disused oval storage pit at Bishopstone, a small village tucked beneath the East Sussex downs between Newhaven and Seaford. The hamlet can trace a continuous 3,000-year line of human habitation from the Neolithic to the Medieval period and the body we’re about to explore is one of its earlier Iron Age inhabitants.
“We have a skeleton of a male or female – we’ll soon find out,” says Paola, lifting the lid of the box and gently picking out a largely toothless skull.
“Some of the differences we find in a skeleton of this period in comparison with modern skeletons have to do with dental wear,” she says as she holds it up to the light.
“We have to understand that people of this period had no access to dental or medical treatment and the diet was grittier and less processed. You will see a lot of wear, which today we don’t see because we eat soft foods.”
The skull, which has a noticeable jaw slant, has just a few teeth left. Most of the crown of the first molars have been completely worn out and two small holes in the gum indicate a painful, puss-ridden infection. The only remnants of two molars in the lower jaw are the exposed roots.
“The tooth has been completely eaten out by decay,” explains Paola, “and this one along with others in the jaw display signs of periodontal disease. You get used to eating with whatever teeth you have left in your mouth but this would have been painful.”
The condition of these teeth might give some clue as to the age of this ancient person but the skull also offers the first real indicators of their sex.
We are staring into the enigmatic, 2,000 year-old eyeless skull sockets of an Iron Age man from Sussex…
“The skull and the pelvis are the bones we use in sexing the skeleton,” explains Paola. “In the absence of these we can carry out some metric analysis, but here you can see how the brow of the skull is more prominent,” she adds as she holds the skull in profile. “In males it is receding. You see how the frontal bone is receding? In females it is vertical.”
Turning it over we look at the base of the skull where a noticeable crest indicates the insertion of muscles supporting the back and the neck. “Also the mastoid process reveals a more robust muscle insertion.”
We are staring into the 2,000 year-old eyeless skull sockets of an Iron Age man from Sussex.
“The skull has always been an enigma,” says Paola. “In some cultures they used to keep heads in wars as trophy heads. Even in the beginnings of anthropology in the early 20th century, on digs they would often only keep the skull and discard the rest of the skeleton. That is why museums like the British Museum and the Natural History Museum have an enormous amount of skulls – because of the very origin of the study.”
Placing the skull carefully at the head of the table she begins to piece together the spine, the success of which depends on the preservation of the vertebrae. “In a normal spine it wouldn’t take long, this one is a bit challenging, but I like a challenge.”
Beginning with the joint at the base of the skull, the first cervical vertebrae, she says, “this is called the atlas, which allows us to say yes as we move the head, and the articulation with the second vertebrae, which is called the axis, allows us to move to the head to the sides and say no.”
It’s a simple anatomical observation, but it’s one that brings the past dramatically into the present and these bone remains soon begin to resemble a person. As the spine is pieced together what soon becomes evident is the level of spinal wear this Iron Age Sussex downsman would have lived with in later life. It also offers an “essential indicator” of his age at death.
“We can already see that this individual was affected by osteoarthritis in the cervical spine. I can tell this by looking at the contour of the vertebral body, which shows some marginal osteophytes – spicules of bone – and a change in the normal contour ”
“You have to be 40-plus to have osteoarthritis like this, so this person from the Iron Age lived to quite an age.”
Average life expectancy during the Iron Age was around 25-30 years old so this man would have been considered an elder and with his toothless grin and arthritic gait, he would have looked the part too.
It’s probable our Iron Age man was a farmer but it’s likely he would have known how to wield a spear or sword as well as he did the plough.
Historians tell us that the Iron Age people of Sussex lived in tribes and although the period saw great advances in metal tools for farming, it was a brutal one with violent death and inter-tribal warfare commonplace. It’s probable our Iron Age man was a farmer but it’s likely he would have known how to wield a spear or sword as well as he did the plough.
Pottery found in the pit dates him to the earlier pre-Roman part of the Iron Age occupation at Bishopstone, a period when a small farming settlement was established near the crest of the hill known as Rookery Hill.
Unenclosed in its primary phase, it was later surrounded by a rectangular enclosure, outside which were fields. Excavation has revealed that the latter were cultivated intermittently from the Neolithic to the Romano-British periods.
The Iron Age structures of Bishopstone were mostly of the four and six post types and our Iron Age man would have lived in a communal house with a central fire, thatched roof and wattle and daub walls. Occupation continued throughout the Romano-British period, during the early part of which a rectangular enclosure was laid out.
Returning to the box Paola retrieves more bones. Sorting through the cold white cage of ribs she finds two examples with breaks, one which has healed a long time before death and a second, which was healing at the time of death.
“We know one fracture was recent – probably it occurred two to three weeks prior to death, because there is healing callus forming between the two broken parts. In the second example, the callus has been absorbed and the only remaining sign of an old break is a slight uneven alignment between the two pieces.”
Next out comes the upper arm (humerus) then the two bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna), then the clavicle (the collar bone) and a fragile looking scapula (shoulder blade) which Paola explains is “so thin it very rarely gets well preserved.”
Checking the left and right humerus against her own body she lays out the shoulders and arms and our 2,000-year-old man takes shape before our eyes. It’s an eerie and humbling experience.
“I don’t feel disconnected,” says Paola as she carefully lays the bones on the table. “We treat them with respect. I’m always aware I’m handling human remains and I feel extremely privileged to be doing what I’m doing and to be able to somehow bring them to life and be able to tell a story about them.
“He has muscle insertions that are well pronounced,” she continues. “He was an old, physically active man and I see the bilateral ossification of the deltoid muscles. Just by looking at them we can see that the right is slightly more robust. Whether that resulted from growing old or from being physically active wielding a weapon during what was an inter-tribal period we don’t know, but in general we do tend to be asymmetrical.”
A careful search through an assortment of brittle bones and shell-like bone fragments reveals what will become a hand.
“These ones are the carpels and metacarpals from the left hand” she says of a group of tiny bones. “Often the bones of the hand and feet do not get very well preserved – unless it was an experienced digger who knows human anatomy and knows what to expect and what to find and where.”
“This person would have been in considerable pain on a daily basis”
“This lunate, which is one of the carpal bones has a shiny surface,” she observes. “This is the result of bone rubbing against bone –or osteoarthritis- the disease of advanced age. When you don’t have cartilage between two bones they start to rub. This person would have been in considerable pain on a daily basis carrying out tasks like fetching water and doing manual labour.” Next come the lower limb bones, the femur the tibia and the fibula.
“In modern times you see more diversity in stature but in ancient skeletons they are more homogeneous and there is less variation within small populations, but the legs sometimes give clues to metabolic disease – for example rickets – but there is no evidence of rickets here.”
The feet also offer an indication of the later life of pain our Iron Age Briton lived with in later life and the calcaneus or heel bone reveals “ossification” of the Achilles tendon. “Today we would call this tendinitis – the ossification of muscles and tendons takes place with age and tends to happen more with males than females.”
So by the end of his life, this old, physically active Ancient Briton had a hard life and the local archaeological context suggests a life in agriculture. “We can tell from the muscle insertions that this individual was physically active and that he didn’t have a sedentary life,” says Paola, “and I think that even though he had osteoarthritis in the spine and hands he would still be moving around. Even though the pain didn’t stop he was definitely a physically active person at the time of death.”
A father, a farmer, an elder or a warrior? Who was this ancient ancestor who farmed the chalklands of the south over two millennia ago? Perhaps his pre-Roman existence was a largely peaceful one, but his remains tell us that, towards the end at least, pain was part of his daily life.
Dr Ponce’s work at Royal Pavilion & Museums (RPM) is part of a collaborative project between RPM and University College London funded by an Art Fund, Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. The Grant has allowed RPM to bring in Paola’s expertise to analyse human remains in the collections which haven’t been properly studied or catalogued. She is currently recording the skeletons from an Anglo Saxon cemetery excavated at Rookery Hill, Bishopstone during the 1960s.
Found out more about the work of Brighton Museum and its collection in their Museum Lab.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Brighton & Hove, East Sussex
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its rich and diverse collections, creates a vibrant cultural centre in and around the Royal Pavilion estate in the heart of the city of Brighton & Hove. Dynamic and innovative galleries provide greatly improved access to the Museum's nationally and locally important collections. Objects…