On Saturday 9 July, the Museum Service hosted a one-day course run by Dr David Klingle on how archaeologists get information from human bones. Eleven participants examined a selection of skeletons mostly from Roman Baldock but also including a sub-Roman skeleton from Hitchin. They included student archaeologists, amateurs and members of the public with a general interest in the past.
The course began with a guide to identifying which part of the body the bones came from. Some are obvious – anyone can recognise a skull and most people will recognise leg and arm bones – but others are much more difficult. David took everyone through the process of recognising individual bones and which sides to the body they belonged to.
What can be learned from the detailed study of human bones? Perhaps more than you might think. Firstly, we can usually work out the age a person was when they died. Although it is not exact, it is mostly possibly to give a range of ages (such as 40s or 60s). Children and younger people are easier to age because we continue to grow and our bones fuse into our 20s, so ageing people under 20 is generally more accurate.
We also try to sex the skeleton. There is no single thing to recognise that can tell us if it was male or female. Instead, we look at a variety of factors, including the shape of the pelvis, the shape of the skull and how robust the bones are. Even so, there is a lot of overlap between male and female skeletal characteristics, so it is sometimes impossible to be sure one way or the other.
The next think to look for is anything unusual in the bones. Are there signs of disease? If so, was the disease still active when the person died or had they recovered from it? Are there signs of disorders during growth and development? Are their signs of broken bones that have now healed? What were their teeth like? The teeth on our Roman skeletons are usually in poor condition, with a thick build-up of calculus, plaque that has mineralised through not being removed. Clearly, people ate a lot of sweet things and did not brush their teeth.
Occasionally, we will find something very unusual. One of the Baldock skeletons has a large bony lump the size of a golf ball on the left side of its lower jaw. The teeth above it are missing and had fallen out some years before the person, probably a man in his 30s, died. At the moment, we are not sure what caused the growth and there are several medical possibilities. We will continue to investigate this, as the condition appears to be very rare.
The course on 9 July was very successful, with satisfied participants. We will be running a weekend course on 22-23 October, in which participants will be able to look into the process of examining skeletons in greater depth than on a one-day course. For further information, email David Klingle who will be running the course.
North Hertfordshire Museum and the British Schools Museum used a grant provided by Affinity Water to run a week of science investigation activities for local school children. Together, we devised a programme to offer 170 children the chance to spend the day learning about Photography , Science and Local History .
At the new North Hertfordshire Museum in our upstairs Learning Centre the children from Whitehill and Purwell Schools did experiments making and testing water filters.
They also made bubble bath to take home :
At the British Schools Museum they made pin hole cameras and solar prints.
Suzanne Walton, Deputy Head of Whitehill School, said “The children had a wonderful time; the activities worked well with what they had been learning and we had a great day at both museums”.
We’ve been involved in a partnership project since last year with Stevenage Museum and the British Schools Museum called Museum Champions. It is funded by Arts Council England, and allowed the three museums to appoint a Volunteer Development Officer. The aim has been to diversify and strengthen our volunteer programmes at each museum, try new things, and share what we’ve all learned. North Hertfordshire Museum recruited a group of 35 young people aged 14-18 from two Hitchin secondary schools to explore youth volunteering. They worked in groups to think up events to promote the new museum, and one of their first events was a pop up museum in the Market Place on 19 March. The students designed and distributed the poster, devised handling activities and attended on the day. Over 200 people stopped to chat and many put their name down for an e-mailing list to be kept informed about progress towards opening.
One of the groups of young people has worked hard over several weeks to prepare a small display to be part of the ‘Flowers and Wedding Dresses through the Ages’ event at St Mary’s Church, Hitchin on 25th and 26th June. The girls, from year 12 at Hitchin Girls’ School, are interested in going on to university to study a mixture of history of art, history and English Literature. They wrote labels for four wedding dresses, loaned to the display from the Learning Collections of North Hertfordshire and Stevenage Museums. They also helped to set up the display in the church, padding mannequins to give the dresses the right shape.
Some of the finished displays in St Mary’s Church, Hitchin. L-R: An Edwardian tea-dress-style wedding dress and a ballerina style wedding dress from 1956.
The volunteers have enjoyed their experiences so far, particularly the chance to work with others, planning events and working in groups. It gave them a chance to see what life is like for adults working in museums, and to study artefacts.
The group are now taking a break during the exam season and will be back at the museum again just before the summer holiday.