A Look at Bones of War

Knowing the age-at-death of individuals who died in the past is critical for our understanding of past events and living conditions. Techniques such as Transition Analysis of the auricular surface and examination of epiphyseal development and fusion in fragmented human bones may help assess age-at-death.

McMaster Researcher

Citation

Brickley M., Dragomir A.-M. and Lockau L. (2015) Age-at-Death Estimates from a Disarticulated, Fragmented and Commingled Archaeological Battlefield Assemblage, Int. J. Osteoarchaeol., doi: 10.1002/oa.2430

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What is this research about?

Obtaining an estimate of the age-at-death is important for understanding past groups.  In this case the task was complicated as the individuals comprised a pile of mixed, broken, poorly preserved bone fragments. This is the first study that examines the impact of preservation and relative usefulness of age-estimation techniques in these less than ideally preserved human remains.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers from McMaster University examined previously collected severely commingled, disarticulated, and fragmented human remains from Smith's Knoll, the site of the Battle of Stoney Creek in Southern Ontario in 1813, an important battle in the War of 1812. The researchers also referred to the documentary sources for some information on age-at-death of those who died in that battle. They then determined the number of people the fragments of bone in the assemblage represented. The right pelvis was the area that represented the highest number of people that died in the battle and contained areas that could be used to estimate age-at-death, such as the pubic symphysis, auricular surface and epiphyseal fusion. Two techniques used to assess age-at-death from the auricular surface were compared. The newly developed Transition Analysis technique was compared to the Lovejoy technique.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that:

  • The collection contained bones from a large number of adolescents (12-19 years old) and young adults (20-35 years old). This result was similar to the data from the documentary sources.
  • The one complete pubic symphysis that was analyzed made no contribution to generating a demographic profile of the people who died.
  • Although the results from the Lovejoy technique are overall similar to those obtained from Transition Analysis of the auricular surface, there was more uncertainty in the results from using the Lovejoy technique. The Transition Analysis of the auricular surfaces was easier to apply to this type of collection; results produced were more useful.
  • The examination of the epiphyseal fusion provided a general impression that the collection contained a large number of younger individuals and contributed to the demographic profile for the site.
  • Although the auricular surface is often present, they are frequently not well preserved. Analysis demonstrated that poor preservation of the auricular surface does impact assessment of age-at-death even using Transition Analysis. Future researchers looking to further develop age estimation techniques need to consider bone preservation.

 

How can you use this research?

This research demonstrates that it is possible to obtain useful data on age-at-death even when dealing with commingled, disarticulated, and fragmented human remains. This finding is useful to museums, archaeological societies, researchers and police forensic departments to obtain demographic data from human remains. The results from this research further our understanding of the different techniques that can be used to examine human remains, and the impact that poor preservation can have on the techniques used.

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