Although our bodies have an amazing ability to heal themselves evidence of trauma can still be seen in bones years after the incident occurred. Evidence of trauma is commonly found in archaeological remains and can often give us clues as the to the types of injuries people suffered from in the past.
The London human remains collection
The Natural History Museum houses a collection of 740 individuals from prehistoric to post medieval London. 33 of these individuals show evidence of trauma.
The types of trauma can be separated into three categories: fractures, sharp force trauma and blunt force trauma. Most of the individuals with trauma showed signs of advanced healing, indicating that the traumatic event occurred some years prior to their death.
Only two of the individuals had evidence of perimortem trauma, meaning that there were no signs of healing and that the traumatic evident likely occurred shortly before death.
Cranial depression fractures were the most common trauma found, with 13 individuals exhibiting a single depression fracture and 1 individual exhibiting 2 depression fractures. These fractures were all well healed, subtle indentations in the cranial vault. Most of the individuals with depression fractures are from the post medieval burial ground, the Green Ground at Portugal Street.
Only 3 individuals from the Thames exhibited depression fractures. The majority of fractures were located on the frontal bone with equal distribution to the left and right sides.
One individual, a prehistoric male found in a crouched burial at Millbank, exhibited a slight compression fracture of a thoracic vertebra. A compression fracture of the vertebral body is caused by excessive impact that is typically the result of a fall.
In this collection of remains there were a number of well healed nasal and facial fractures. With the exception of one individual, recovered from the Thames, all of the individuals with nasal and facial fractures are from post medieval burial contexts; the Green Ground at Portugal Street, St George’s in the Borough and an unnamed burial ground in Whitechapel. Some of the individuals had simple transverse fractures across the bridge of the nose while others had more extensive fractures including the bones of the face and cheek (the maxilla and zygomatic bones).
The remains from Ludgate Hill consist solely of individual bone elements collected because of their traumatic fractures.
Sharp force trauma
Three individuals have evidence for potential sharp force trauma, two from the post medieval burial ground, the Green Ground at Portugal Street, and one dredged from the Thames near Mortlake.
Blunt force trauma
There was only one individual with evidence of blunt force trauma. This was a cranium recovered from the River Thames.
Trauma is considered perimortem when it occurs at or near the time of death, with no evidence of the healing process. Two individuals recovered from the Thames had evidence of potential perimortem trauma.
By Elissa Menzel
A project to digitise the London human remains collection was made possible thanks to the generosity of The Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust