Osteology is the scientific study of bones, practiced by osteologists. A subdiscipline of anatomy, anthropology, and archaeology, osteology is a detailed study of the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, microbone morphology, function, disease, pathology, the process of ossification (from cartilaginous molds), the resistance and hardness of bones (biophysics), etc. often used by scientists with identification of vertebrate remains with regard to age, death, sex, growth, and development and can be used in a biocultural context. Osteologists frequently work in the public and private sector as consultants for museums, scientists for research laboratories, scientists for medical investigations and/or for companies producing osteological reproductions in an academic context, such as Bone Clones.
Osteology and osteologists should not be confused with the holistic practice of medicine known as osteopathy and its practitioners, osteopaths.
A typical analysis will include:
- an inventory of the skeletal elements present
- a dental inventory
- aging data, based upon epiphyseal fusion and dental eruption (for subadults) and deterioration of the pubic symphysis or sternal end of ribs (for adults)
- stature and other metric data
- non-metric traits
- pathology and/or cultural modifications
Osteological approaches are frequently applied to investigations in disciplines such as vertebrate paleontology, zoology, forensic science, physical anthropology and archaeology, and has a place in research on topics including:
- Ancient warfare
- Activity patterns
- Criminal investigations
- Developmental biology
- Genetics of early populations
- Fossil assemblages
- Human migration
- Identification of unknown remains
- Social inequality
- War crimes
A recent endeavor by the city of London to expand their railway system unintentionally uncovered 25 human skeletons at Charterhouse Square in 2013. Although archaeological excavation of the skeletons temporarily halted the further advances in the railway system, they have given way to new, possibly revolutionary discoveries in the field, as well as re-write history.
These 25 skeletal remains, along with many more that were found in further searches, are said to be among the mass grave dug to bury the millions of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century. Archaeologists and forensic scientists have used osteology to examine the condition of the skeletal remains, to help piece together the reason why the Black Death had such a detrimental effect on the European population. It was discovered that most of the population was in generally poor health to begin with. Through extensive analysis of the bones, it was discovered that many of the inhabitants of Great Britain were plagued with rickets, anemia, and malnutrition. There has also been frequent evidence that much of the population had traces of broken bones from frequent fighting and hard labor.
This archaeological project has been named the Crossrail Project. Archaeologists will continue to excavate and search for remains to help uncover missing pieces of history. These advancements in our past will only be further developed through more extensive research of other skeletons buried in the same area for years to come.
- Bass, W. M. 2005. Human Osteology: A Laboratory and Field Manual. 5th Edition. Columbia: Missouri Archaeological Society.
- Buikstra, J. E. and Ubelaker, D. H. (eds.) 1994. Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains. Arkansas Archeological Survey Research Series No. 44.
- Cox, M and Mays, S. (eds.) 2000. Human Osteology in Archaeology and Forensic Science. London: Greenwich Medical Media.
- McCoy, Terrence. "Everything you know about the Black Death is wrong". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
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