The Archaeology of Roman Medicine

Archaeology

Osteoarchaeologists help to discover more about people and societies in the past by examining their skeletal remains. Modern scientific techniques are allowing new insights into diet, health and well-being of people in the past through detailed study of human remains.

Trauma & healing

Human bones often display evidence of past traumas, along with evidence of whether the trauma was healed or unhealed. This allows bone specialists to not only learn about injuries that have been sustained, but how well they were treated and healed or whether they were unhealed, suggesting the cause of death.

 

Digging for Disease

Bones often display evidence of disease, such as leprosy or tuberculosis or of nutritional stresses, such as scurvy or rickets. Bones can also tell us about surgical procedures in the past, such as trepanation, which was done to relieve blood or pressure by drilling into the bone of the skull.

Diet and health

Bone specialists can use scientific methods to learn more about past people in terms of their diet. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis can be measured from human bone to reconstruct the types of food people ate. Did they eat fish or meat or both? Isotope results can then be combined with evidence of nutritional stresses on the skeleton to look for clues of dietary deficiencies, for example, not enough vitamin C (scurvy) or vitamin D (rickets) in their diet.

Open wide!

Osteoarchaeologists don’t just look at the bones of the skeleton but the teeth too. Dental pathologies, such as caries, tartar, abscesses or severe wear on the teeth can aid isotope analysis and give us further clues about the diet of the individual. For example, severe wear on the teeth may be due to eating coarse foods, such as gritty breads, made with unrefined flour or caries on the teeth may have been due a high sugar intake. Watch out for those sugary sweets and cakes!

From head to toe, inside and out, the human skeleton can provide many clues about the life once lived. By learning more about past people through osteoarchaeology, we can gain a great understanding of how people lived in the past and learn lessons from them for today.

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