Bare-bones investigation

By | Science & Technology
A research team at the Museum of London are going to research the effect of industrialisation on Londoners by examining old bones. Credit@Museum of London

The Museum of London has reportedly announced new, ground-breaking research to be undertaken on skeletons from the collection, adding to their ever-changing story of London and its people. The three-year project was awarded the City of London Archaeological Trust’s (CoLAT) largest ever grant for archaeological research – £80,000. CoLAT is a charity that supports and initiates a variety of archaeological work across London. John Schofield, Secretary of the City of London Archaeological Trust said, “The City of London Archaeological Trust is very happy that the Rosemary Green bequest is used to gather this cutting-edge data on the signs of industrialisation in the skeletal collections on the Museum of London.” Using the latest technology, the team aim to decipher the ‘stories written’ in the skeletal remains of more than 1,000 men and women from industrial-era London and investigate the impact of 18th century industrialisation on the human body.

The project aims to explore the effects of industrialisation on people living in London. The industrial revolution describes the movement towards new manufacturing processes in the city from approximately 1760 to 1840. It marks a key turning point in human history, since it apparently changed almost every aspect of daily life in some way. The revolution began in Great Britain before spreading across Western Europe and North America within a few short decades. Between 1840 and 1870, technological and economic progress assisted the revolution further as it evolved into the Second Industrial Revolution, with the increasing adoption of steam transport and large-scale manufacturing machinery. During the Industrial Revolution, living conditions varied from splendour for factory owners, to squalor for workers. It also created a middle class of professionals, such as lawyers and doctors.

This research’s objective is to reveal new information on human conditions and how they changed as Britain headed into the industrial age. Leading the project is Jelena Bekvalac, based at the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarcheology, along with her colleagues, Gaynor Western and Mark Farmer. “The most tangible evidence we have for the long-term consequences of the industrialisation process upon us is, quite simply, written in our bones,” Bekvalac said. “Using the very latest digital technology, we [aim to] examine the skeletal remains of over 1,000 adult men and women from industrial-era London in addition to a further 500 skeletons from the medieval metropolis.” The team is also looking to examine the bones of people living outside of London in order identify comparative patterns.

Skulls at the museum. Credit@Museum of London

Skulls at the museum. Credit@Museum of London

“Modern health trends have seen a shift towards increasing life expectancy but we want to look again at what are often thought of as ‘man-made’ conditions like obesity and cancer. Given today’s more sedentary lifestyles, far removed from the physically active and natural existence of most of our forebears, there are some big questions about the origins of these [conditions] and how they relate to the modern environment,” explained Bekvalac. The research aims to understand these longstanding mysteries more deeply by analysing conditions that affect the human skeleton. The latest clinical techniques, including direct digital radiography, CT scanning and 3D modelling may look at the bones and assess how the skeleton changed throughout history.

Ultimately, the research intends to inspect the influence of the industrial revolution, a pivotal catalyst in the formation of the modern age, on the changing nature of human conditions – from the medieval and post-medieval periods through to the present day. A secondary goal is to digitise a number of London’s most important skeletal collections and provide a new narrative on London’s public health throughout history. The work may culminate in the production of an extensive resource of interactive content, which may be explored online. Bekvalac’s team plan to start the digital imaging immediately, intending to publish findings as well as deliver a series of lectures about the work.

How might other eras throughout human history have significantly affected the human body?

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