Consulting with the Smithsonian

Taphonomy vs. Pathology in the Archeological Record

by Kerri Wilhelm

As the in-house human osteologist I am responsible for conducting the biological profiles for the numerous sets of human remains that comprise TARL’s Human Osteology (HO) collection.  Biological profiles here consist of creating documentation that becomes part of the permanent records for this sensitive collection.  Following completion of a physical inventory I attempt to include pertinent information on sex, age at death, stature and ancestral affiliation when possible as revealed through the discriminant functions of FORDISC.  I attempt to include information as pertains to evidence of pathology and/or trauma in the remains: healed fractures, lesions, enamel hypoplasia in the dentition, etc.  In the fall of this past year I was reviewing several sets of remains in the collection which originated from a cave context.  Presenting with what at first appeared to be lytic process affecting the outer table of bone at various locations across the two sets of remains, I was excited that we might potentially have related cases of some identifiable pathology.   I was also aware that these ‘lesions’ could also potentially be the result of some taphonomic process that I was unfamiliar with personally.  So, what does one do when in need of some human osteological identification assistance?  I contact one of my former professors who happens to be a forensic anthropologist and the Physical Anthropology Collections Manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C.

I contacted Dave and let him know that I needed his assistance to identify the type and nature of a specific ‘signature.’  I forwarded him photographs of the signature as taken at various locations on the two sets of remains.  After about a week of back-and-forth, and some research into comparable signatures that could present like a lesion, Dave pointed out that the ‘cavitations’ in the bone progressed from the outer table of the bone inward toward the medullary (marrow) cavity, as opposed to the reverse, originating from the medullary cavity outward.  In this instance the former proved to be an indication of a taphonomic process, while the latter would be attributed to a pathologic process such as that which occurs in multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells).  Now that is was narrowed down to a taphonomic process…what kind was it?

We had to consider the archeological context from which the remains would have originated.  A trip down into TARL’s Records Room for the original field notes and final report which resulted from the field investigation revealed that the burial environment was damp, at least seasonally.  I also researched the types of scavenging fauna that could potentially produce the ‘cavitations’ while living in the environment in which the burial occurred.  The result of the research and identification assistance provided by Dave Hunt, in conjunction with the specific signature observed in the bone, led to an identification of “terrestrial snail activity.”  Despite no longer having him as a professor, Dave is still teaching by means of sharing his invaluable experience as a physical and forensic anthropologist.  Now our collections documentation can include the identification of the signature on the remains and future researchers here at TARL can benefit from a new tool to better interpret the taphonomic processes involved in the archeology of human burials.

You can learn more about Dave Hunt (photographed above while providing a tour of the NMNH’s ‘mummuy vault’) and his responsibilities, in addition to his research interests and projects, at the National Museum of Natural History website:

Below is an image of the ‘cavitations,’ the result of post-mortem snail feeding (rasping) activity on bone, taken using TARL’s portable digital microscope in the Human Osteology Lab:

lateral right tibia midhsaft_1




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