Trauma in London | Human Anthropology

Adult male skull with a healed nasal fracture

Adult male from St George’s in the Borough with a healed nasal fracture

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.

Compression/depression fractures

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.

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Adult male from the Green Ground, Portugal Street with a healed depression fracture above the left eye orbit.

 

Skull with depression fracture on the right side of the frontal bone

Adult, probable male from the Green Ground, Portugal Street with a healed depression fracture on the right side of the frontal bone.

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.

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This compression fracture is characterised by a change in the height of the vertebral body with it sloping down anteriorly.

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).

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Adult, male from St George’s in the Borough with a healed but malunited and misaligned nasal fracture

The remains from Ludgate Hill consist solely of individual bone elements collected because of their traumatic fractures.

Mandible of an adult

Mandible of an adult of indeterminate sex from Ludgate Hill with a well healed fracture of the mandibular body and the left mandibular condyle. Note the misalignment of the fractures and the hole in the posterior aspect (bottom right image) enabling necrotic or dead bone to pass out of the inside of the bone

Fracture of the left femur

Anterior and posterior view of a well healed but malunited and misaligned midshaft fracture of the left femur, shown next to a normal left femur. This fracture was never set properly before healing and the strong muscles that are attached to the femur have pulled the lower half up shortening that leg by at least 5 cm. Although the fracture looks very severe the healing is extensive. The bone has not atrophied or lost any mass so it is likely that this individual was able to walk on it, though most certainly with a change in gait.

Left tibia with a healed midshaft fracture

Left tibia with a healed midshaft fracture next to a normal left tibia (with post mortem damage). Note that the ends of the fracture are aligned vertically but that the lower part of the shaft has been forced up into the upper part. This fracture was likely caused by a fall as the impact that caused it came from below.

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.

forehead of an adult

Healed sharp edged trauma on the forehead of an adult individual dredged from the bed of the Thames.

Blunt force trauma

There was only one individual with evidence of blunt force trauma. This was a cranium recovered from the River Thames.

Perimortem trauma

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.

Adult, probable male skull

Adult, probable male recovered from the bed of the Thames at Mortlake with a rounded hole in the top of his cranium exhibiting radiating fracture lines. Although there is post mortem damage to the area around the hole, the evidence suggests that this trauma was perimortem.

By Elissa Menzel

Funding

A project to digitise the London human remains collection was made possible thanks to the generosity of The Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust

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